I wrote this simply because I enjoyed the concert so much, and eventually posted it on the Rock's Back Pages blog which is no longer operating. Gillian Welch's albums are among the most played in our home and on my iPod.
The aching melancholia of Gillian Welch’s songs about adversity is only partially balanced by the sprightly, lyrical playing of her immensely skilled guitarist and partner David Rawlings. In a concert that lasted well over two hours and included almost 30 songs, Welch and Rawlings – a bona fide duo in all but name - demonstrated levels of sincerity and soulfulness that puts to the sword the shallow nature of so much of what passes for popular music in the 21st century.
There was no support. Welch and Rawlings played two sets, the first opening with the gorgeous ‘Orphan Girl’, the lead song on her debut album, which set the tone for an evening of delightful harmony singing, though the concert was dedicated primarily to showcasing songs from her most recent recording, the long awaited The Harrow & The Harvest. Of these ‘Scarlet Town’, ‘The Way It Goes’ and ‘Down Along The Dixie Line’ shone like jewels, while for ‘Six White Horses’ Welch abandoned her large Gibson Jumbo and slapped her thighs to emphasize the rhythm on a song that is unusually upbeat for the pair. She also executed a rather cute square dance, tapping the heels and soles of her cowboy boots on the stage and raising the hem of her floral dress barn-dance style, much to the audience’s delight. Meanwhile Rawlings played a small and elderly-looking f-hole guitar worn high on the chest like the old Merseybeat groups, executing sizzling runs, graceful arpeggios and bluegrass picking to rank with any ol’ boy from Tennessee. He uses a capo well up the fretboard to produce a high, ringing tone, a bit like a mandolin, that is as captivating as it is unusual. He and Welch both alternated between guitars and banjo on selected songs, while she occasionally blew a mournful harp from a rack around her neck, commenting at one point how ‘chicks’ don’t like to play harp because it smears their lipstick. “Not the kind I use,” she added drily, to the crowd’s amusement.
There were highlights from their back catalogue too, most notably ‘Elvis Presley Blues’, ‘Look At Miss Ohio’ and ‘Revelator’ which featured a furious free form guitar coda from Rawlings. Their celebratory rendition of ‘I’ll Fly Away’, the Dillards’ song as yet unrecorded by them, lifted the Dome roof during the encores, its soaring harmonies causing this reviewer to momentarily reconsider his Humanist views on reincarnation.
The roots of their material, a timeless hybrid of country, bluegrass and folk all wrapped up into the modern generalisation of Americana, stretch back through Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie to as far away as Stephen Foster, and are all the more remarkable for having been written, largely by Welch and Rawlings, in the past two decades. When Welch sings hauntingly of the hardships endured by migrants and orphans, and poor families who place their trust in God, you are taken back to the Great Depression, that time and place in the dustbowl of American history so graphically documented by John Steinbeck and now re-interpreted musically by this pale, self-effacing and enormously likeable girl whose superb performance brought Brighton Dome to its feet in repeated demands for encore after encore that climaxed, uncharacteristically, in a strident run through Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’.
I could happily have listened to them all night.