Gillian Welch At Beacon Theatre, Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017, reviewed
Bob Dylan was less authenticate than David Bowie, and Gillian Welch, the LA roots rocker meets Americana duo featuring the flat picking guitarist David Rawlings and his musical partner Gillian Welch, is more authentic than both, but still in the new no direction home world of the inauthentic world of Americana where everybody from Rodney Crowell to Sturgill Simpson are tarred and feathered as new marketing tool where there is falseness in the Appalachian Hills. It’s enough to keep you on your heels, and enough to make you weary of Gillian Welch, or Dave Rawlings Machine, enough to make you sneer at the pretentious of fingers whose blisters don’t come from tilling the fields. Perhaps if I’d realized Rawlings co –wrote “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” I’d have been less of a dick about em. As it stands, even catching Gillian perform with Bright Eyes ten years ago didn’t turn me around.
Watching the duo perform their superb 2011 The Harrow & The Harvest, in celebration of its vinyl release, last night at the Beacon Theatre, I’m afraid I had let my snobbery get the better of me. The two, musical partners it says here, mesmerized us with songs of such immense craft and such poignant and powerful sense and sorrows, that it doesn’t have to take itself too seriously. It is one thing for Gillian to dance a country jig because David was picking the banjo and blowing the harp and she had nothing else to do, but better for David to start up the song again after its over and Gillian to pull up her skirt and do it all over again. It takes the solemnness of the proceedings and clings it to the most upbeat song on the album, the rousing “Six White Horses”.
So, I had no interest in the duo, never even heard The Harrow And The Harvest, until attending the new folk via T-Bone Burnett (who produced Gillian Welch’s debut album) “Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis'” Concert January 13, 2013, at the Town Hall. The show is legendary but I found it dull in places and very dull in others, and if what appealed to me was new kids on the block like Rhiannon Giddens, Milk Carton Kids, and Lake Side Drive, the only folks who completely won me over was Gillian Welch. Last night they did more than that.
The Harrow & The Harvest is a dark album, Gillian noted that if they weren’t playing the entire album in order they wouldn’t have performed so many songs with minor chords to open the evening, but if it was as much low down as down low, the two stood at separate microphones, except when coming together, but their voices tangled up nicely and while the relentlessly downbeat songs of drug overdoses and break ups and break downs (“this one is faster but there are more deaths”) was pitch black at times, the actual twosome weren’t, they were enjoying themselves and it was infectious. “When you lay me down to rest leave a pistol in my vest,” Gillian sang in a song that felt like a nursery rhyme and a nightmare at the same time it was dress up yet true to its moment. . Not untypical, in a dress that was designed for a trip to Tombstone to pick up supplies for the sheep farm, Gillian reveled in the distance between her adoptive parents writing the music for the Carol Burnette show and Ralph Stanley playing on her phonogram. david looked like a cross between a travelling salesman in the 1950s and a refugee from a Sam Shepherd play Together, you feel as though Gillian Welch had come to life in the late 30s with the Carter family, not in 1997 –three years after Kurt Cobain killed himself.
That is the way that it goes, the duo are not quite role playing but not quite real either, and the only thing that can save them is precisely what does save them, the songs, their ease on stage, and Rawling’s extreme skills as a foil and an equal to Gillian. When Gillian complains that she is about to lose the last nut bolt on her harp standing, the knowing glances causes David to break down laughing. When he straps on her banjos (“you know what I’ve heard about New Yorkers…”) Gillian whisper to us conspiratorially…
I am not a fan, not really, and the proof I am not a fan is I preferred the first set, the album set, to the pickings the flesh off the bones of their records second set. Or maybe I am a huge fan because in an evening filled with sounds I don’t naturally enjoy, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Early in the second set “Elvis Presley Blues” (“didn’t he die?”) opened with a litany of musicians who had covered the song, from Grace Potter to Tom Jones, and later still “Orphan Girl” felt like a found song and a self portrait in just the slightest of metaphoric transgressions, perhaps they are, in fact, timeless. Outstanding musicians, at ease on stage, holding forth on folk and its variants, a long way from home but still not that far.