The electric marquee outside of Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room gave the impression that last night’s concert there was a Gillian Welch show, but in many ways the show belonged to Welch’s guitarist and harmonizer David Rawlings. It’s no disrespect to Gillian – no one writes as concise or loaded a song as she does, and her songs exhibit a structural simplicity and formal beauty that allows the fleet-fingered Rawlings to ornament her songs with borderless precision.
Welch and Rawlings chart a path that touches on elements of folk, bluegrass, country and rock & roll, but in performance, the duo most closely resembles a jazz band. Welch plays and sings the theme of each song, leaving space for one of Rawlings’ solos (which were routinely met with enthusiastic hoots and claps from the reverent, sold-out crowd). When he solos, Rawlings teeters and hovers near the microphone, standing on his toes and making an expression somewhere between ecstasy and agony. He’s a musician who is in complete control of his instrument, and yet he seems continually amazed at what comes out of his tiny guitar. He’s not marvelling at his own technique like a hair-metal castoff, mind you – he’s in awe of the music he and Welch creates, not his own ability. My friend Frank commented that Rawlings looks like he’s playing his guitar on the edge of cliff, an appropriate metaphor for the chances he takes in his serpentine runs on the fretboard. (Frank is an English teacher, after all – metaphors are his game.)
The show began with “Orphan Girl” from 1996’s Revival, one of the earliest and best examples of Welch’s ability to write songs that contain personal and biographical detail but that sound utterly ageless. Welch, bedecked in a thin black dress and clunky cowboy boots, made reference to the nearby Elvis Room in Blueberry Hill before starting into “Elvis Presley Blues.” (It wouldn’t be the last reference to the venue; Rawlings sang a foot-stomping version of “Maybellene” in honor of the room’s patron saint, Chuck Berry.)
Those anxious to hear new songs from a hopefully-forthcoming new album (it’s been four years since her last record was released) were treated to a few new numbers, including the longtime live staple “Throw Me a Rope,” a mean, broken-hearted song that ranks among Welch’s best. “Knuckleball Catcher” (these titles are best guesses on my part) settles into the genteel style of Soul Journey, a more relaxed view of the ups and downs of romance.
After a brief intermission, the pair returned for another set. Banjo in hand, Welch began the seductive stomp of “My First Lover” and transitioned into “Wayside/Back in Time.” For me, the highlight came with a devastating pass at “Revelator,” a song that showcases Welch’s most naked, self-damning lyrics; last night’s performance featured an endurance-testing solo by Rawlings, one that vascilated between gentle, barely-there plucks and concrete-fisted stabs across the strings – I was out of breath just watching him.
After a few standing ovations, the pair led a sing-along of “I’ll Fly Away” (from O Brother, Where Art Thou) before closing the show with a snowballing cover of Johnny and June Carter Cash’s “Jackson.” It’s the perfect song for the duo, a country that is ornery, playful and self-destructive, and in the hands of Welch and Rawlings, delivered with a wink and a smile.