Her Majesty’s Theatre. 3 Feb 2016
Some things really are worth the wait. And Adelaide has waited a very long time for a first visit from the incomparable Gillian Welch and her brilliant musical partner David Rawlings. It has been eleven years since they last toured Australia and then it was Eastern States only. This time they drove to South Australia from Perth - 28 hours by car, they proudly report, but- with some regret - not a single kangaroo sighted.
The crowd in Her Majesty’s is buzzing with anticipation and is not disappointed. “Greetings y’all”, beams Ms Welch, wearing a silk and lace ankle length shift dress and cowboy boots. Her soft-spoken beau, David Rawlings is dressed in a suit and a cream Stetson – the full ten gallons, or is that 37.8 litres? The staging is simple but carefully considered. The lighting is soft and buttery, a small table stands behind the twin microphones, on it a little cabinet with drawers for capos, harmonica holders, plectrums and other miniature mysteries.
They open with Scarlet Town, one of the highlights of the now-not-so-recent 2011 release, The Harrow and the Harvest. It is all there, straight off the bat. The enticing guitar duetting – Welch’s steady rhythm counterpointed by Rawlings’s amazingly nimble, wonderfully expressive syncopated melody lines. It is a curious mix of madrigal lute, bluegrass mandolin and acoustic punk.
Then, in comes Gillian Welch’s ringing vocal – “When I went down to Scarlet Town/ ain’t never been there before/ you slept on a feather bed / I slept on the floor....The things I seen in Scarlet Town did mortify my soul/ Look at that deep well/Look at that dark grave/ringing that iron bell/ in Scarlet Town today. “
It is a traditional song revived to perfection by a New York born, LA-raised , Berkelee School of Music graduate who doesn’t have to be born in Appalachia to capture that amalgam of 17th century English ballad, Pentecostal gospel and Depression era good-time music that fuels American country music. Leading participants in the O Brother Where Art Thou? music soundtrack which became the Ryman Theatre stage show, Down From the Mountain, it is no exaggeration to say that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have been key to a new wave of 21st century Americana. Alt.Country is now the new mainstream, drawing in talents such as Bonnie Prince Billy, The Handsome Family, Punch Brothers and Iron and Wine, as well as reviving and refocusing the careers of Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.
The opening cluster of songs in the first set includes both original compositions and re-arrangements of such familiar fare as Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor – Welch crooning plaintively with Rawlings’ wistful fingerpicking sweetly reminiscent of the legendary Mississippi John Hurt. Then it’s time for some Vitamin B, as Welch jokingly refers to her banjo, and begins that irresistibly ramshackle riff that opens into Rock of Ages. Disarmingly deprecating about their music, Gillian Welch introduces The Way it Will Be by saying – “The next one is a real downer, it starts out slowly and then fizzles out.” For the following song, The Way it Goes Rawlings adds – “this one is faster, but … sadder.” Needless to say both were performed to perfection, followed by the mournful sweet strains of Wayside/Back in Time and Annabelle.
They close the first half with the majestically slow Elvis Presley Blues, Welch in fine vocal and Rawlings as always reeling out note perfect solos, his small-bodied guitar held in near vertical position as he closes his eyes and slowly undulates with the unfurling melodies, riffs and rhythms- all in complete and effortless accord with Welch’s chiming voice and rock steady guitar. A rousing bluegrass version of Red Clay Halo ends the set on such a high that the interval seems essential just to gather our wits.
The duo come back even stronger after the break. Welch sings the semi-confessional ballad from Soul Journey, No One Knows My Name, and - a highpoint of an already vertiginous program – Hard Times, a Depression era sharecropper song about a farmer and his mule. It is a Welch-Rawlings composition, with strong traditional origins. And like the Woody Guthrie compositions and the Hollis Brown-era Bob Dylan works that precede it , the song powerfully evokes those elements of poverty, social injustice, and fortitude which made folk music also politically activist music – in the 1930s, the 1960s, and surely, again, in these times of the 1% wealthy and Occupy Wall Street.
The program reminds us how strong their repertoire is. With just five albums in twenty years (plus two more with the David Rawlings Machine) Gillian Welch, reminiscent of Americana pioneers, The Band, has distilled an exceptional set of songs. She sings Down Along the Dixie Line and then Six White Horses , complete with thigh and flank slapping rhythms –“it’s called hamboning” – and some wildly-admired bootstepping from Welch. Revelator, the crowning song from the crowning album, has the hackles shivering and Rawlings’ novocaine anthem Sweet Tooth is an open-tuned rumpus of ragtime and cakewalk. After the gothic murder ballad Caleb Meyer, Gillian Welch steps forward to ask a favour of the audience. It is her father’s 90th birthday and, on the road in Australia, she can’t be there. The audience sings Happy Birthday Kenny and is also invited to capture the moment for YouTube. Up it went, minutes after the show. Look at Miss Ohio and Everything is Free close the proceedings on what can only be called a perfect note.
Except there is more. A taste of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, in tribute to the late Paul Kantner. And a masterful version of Lefty Frizzell’s weepy, Long Black Veil. The sound quality has been flawless all evening (let no one say Her Majesty’s has dud acoustics) and David Rawlings has played his pin-sharp guitar direct to a microphone.
For the final song the duo come to the edge of the stage and perform entirely without amplification. It is a spell-binding finale; the audience quieter than the quietest mice, Gillian Welch’s tuneful melancholy vocal in telepathic harmony with Rawlings and his minimal guitar. At one point all we hear is her vocal and the merest tapping harmonics from the fretboard. Less has never been quite this more. No-one who was there will forget this concert. As I said, it was worth the wait.
When: 3 Feb
Where: Her Majesty’s Theatre