Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part of our Song of the Day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs and recordings from independent artists our DJ’s think you should hear. Each and every Friday we deliver songs by local artists. Today’s selection, featured on the Afternoon Show with Kevin Cole, is “Bells of Harlem” by Dave Rawlings Machine from the 2009 album A Friend Of A Friend on Acony Records.
After 12 years backing bluegrass heart-breaker Gillian Welch, Nashville’s king flatpicker David Rawlings has finally grabbed hold of the reigns with his first “solo” album, A Friend of A Friend. Released under the duo’s new project, Dave Rawlings Machine, A Friend is more than just another stunning signature Welch/Rawlings record. While the two maintain their romantic Appalachian folk sound, Rawlings ain’t hiding his light under a bushel this time ‘round.
The southern triple threat (performer/writer/producer) spent years producing and supporting Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show, not to mention contributing to Bright Eyes (Cassadaga), Ryan Adams (Heartbreaker) and Robyn Hitchcock (Spooked) to humbly name a few. So it’s no surprise that even his solo gig came about in the midst of writing another collaborative record with Welch. Picking up where they left off (Soul Journey, 2003), the duo created new songs which began to materialize around Rawlings’ voice. When his attempts to shove the songs aside failed, the two rode with it, creating nine harmonious gems, eight of which Rawlings sings lead. With the help of keyboardist Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers, keyboardist Nathaniel Wilcott of Bright Eyes and members of Old Crow Medicne Show, A Friend of A Friend was completed, title and all.
“Bells of Harlem” may be the album’s closing track, but it’s the perfect introduction for Rawlings’ talent as a newfound frontman. The hazey dazey waltz features sensitive string arrangements, organic vocals and simple acoustic, painting a picture of wisdom and sincerity from a life time of toil and trial. Rawlings opens with the world waking up and how he couldn’t “sleep for dreaming,” yet his “weary soul is finally home”. Welch soon steps in, surrounding his voice with a blanket of serenity and power, while he moves on to sing about forgotten memories, referencing large crowds and “The Freedom Train” (originally created in the 40s as a way to reawaken Americans to their undervalued liberties). As strings fade in and out, and drama builds and falls, the two stay vocally constant, always coming back to their yearning to hear the “Bells of Harlem.”
Dave Rawlings Machine couldn’t have picked a better time to grace Seattle with their presence than Valentine’s Day. Rawlings and Welch along with Ketch Secor, Willie Watson, and Morgan Jahnig of Old Crow Medicine Show are playing the Showbox At the Market February 14 at 8 p.m. For a preview, check out Dave Rawlings Machine in-store performance @ Grimeys in Nashville on December 3: