An Evening with Gillian Welch, Enmore Theatre, Sydney
The previous Australian tour of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings is the stuff of legend. Folks who caught one of those shows back in 2004 recall it with the kind of dewy-eyed reverence usually reserved for the likes of Springsteen or the Stones. The show I saw, at Parramatta in Sydney’s west, began 90 minutes late due to a travel snafu. Doof music from a nightclub downstairs bled through the floor during the second half of the performance. I found it impossible, therefore, to give the concert a better score than 11 out of 10. Yeah, it was that good.
Eleven years later, the duo is fulfilling a long-held wish to visit Australia as both Gillian Welch and the Dave Rawlings Machine. The first half of the trip began in Perth, over on the west coast, took them across the desert to Adelaide, on to Melbourne, and north to Sydney. Finishing the Gillian Welch half of the tour in Brisbane, they turn around for a run down the east coast as the Dave Rawlings Machine.
After more than a decade, there was pent up demand for An Evening with Gillian Welch. The Melbourne and Sydney shows – two nights in each city – sold out quickly, as did most of the dates.
Would they live up to the lofty expectations? Could they perform the same magic, second time around?
Yes they could, in spades. To the extent it’s possible to compare events over a span of time; I thought this at least the equal of 2004. I certainly left the theatre on the same cushion of adrenalin and dopamine. For anything lost, something has been gained – newness replaced by easy familiarity, surprise with burnish. But the elements that make Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings a great live act remain – excellent songs, Gillian’s gorgeous voice, impossibly perfect harmonies, and the sonic embroidery of Dave’s single-note runs on his vintage guitar.
That guitar. It’s an old (1935) but relatively cheap and unheralded Epiphone Olympic archtop, rescued from a friend’s attic. Dave’s played it on every Gillian Welch/DRM album since the 1996 debut, Revival. He always uses a capo, usually well down the neck, giving the instrument a constant high sound. As Gillian Welch pointed out during the show, others have played that guitar, but nobody plays it like Dave. Although he can ham it up a little on stage, Dave’s playing is mostly the opposite of flashy. His solos emerge organically from his accompaniment, always welded to the core of the song and not a thing apart. The instrumental interplay between Dave and Gillian, who is a superb rhythm guitarist, is the equal of their harmonies.
The audience plays its part, of course, in every memorable concert, and this was a willing crowd, greeting Gillian and Dave like returning heroes. If anything, the appetite for the music we call Americana has increased in the past eleven years. Perhaps now, as much as ever, is their time.
Chewing the fat before the show, my friend Tom and I decided that they are more a “folk” act than “country”, and I guess what we were saying is that their style, which blends elements of mountain music, bluegrass and gospel harks more to those folky traditions than to mainstream country. But it’s all filtered through a love for and knowledge of the widest range of music. (This is a duo whose lauded covers range from alt country heroes like Townes Van Zandt, to Neil Young and Radiohead, through to AC/DC and Cyndi Lauper.)
The show began with “Scarlet Town”, the opening track from The Harrow and the Harvest, the only album released under Gillian’s name since 2003, perhaps subtly signaling that tonight would be no mere exercise in nostalgia. They ended up playing eight of the ten songs from Harvest, none of them out of place.
The set list was textbook example of pacing, and of light and shade. The first half built to a high point with “Tennessee”, a standout from Harvest, lyrically one of Gillian Welch’s best songs: “.. of all the the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself,/Well, you may be my favorite one of all.” A rollicking “Red Clay Halo” – featuring a blistering solo by Dave – took us into intermission.
“Revelator” was the high point of the second set, with Dave going into Neil Young overdrive a couple of times. This called for an abrupt change of course, which they achieved with “Six White Horses”; Gillian’s hand claps and thigh slaps more pronounced than on disc, and with a little bonus step dancing. Then another right turn, with Dave taking over on the hilarious “Sweeth Tooth”, from DRM’s first album.
The second set ended with “Caleb Meyer”, one of the few songs from the earliest albums (Hell Among the Yearlings), but nobody was going home just yet.
The encores kicked off with crowd pleaser “Look at Miss Ohio”, from 2003’s Soul Journey, followed by “I’ll Fly Away”, a gospel standard recorded by Welch with Alison Krauss for the Coen brothers’ Oh Brother Where Art Thou?
The second encore began with Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind”, one of my all-time favourites, followed by “Jackson”, made famous in the 60s by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. (I always thought “Jackson” pretty corny, but I went with it. At this stage, Gillian and Dave could have been singing the phone book.)
Following a third standing ovation, they came out to the edge of the stage, asked for quiet, and sang “Long Black Veil” (the first song they ever performed together) without microphones. You could have heard a pin drop. I’m not sure how much of it got to the back of the room, but it came across as a lullaby for 1600 over-excited kids who needed soothing before bedtime. A perfect end to perfect night.
Setlist at setlist.fm
Photo Credit: Love Police
An Evening with Gillian Welch
11 February, The Tivoli, Brisbane
An Evening with Dave Rawlings Machine
12 February, The Triffid, Brisbane
13 February, A&I Hall, Bangalow (SOLD OUT)
14 February, A&I Hall, Bangalow (SOLD OUT)
16 February, Enmore Theatre, Sydney
17 February, The Playhouse, Canberra (SOLD OUT)
19 February, The Palais, Melbourne
Dream A Highway (Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings Machine, Willie Watson, Haas Kowert Tice)
20 February, Festival Hall, Melbourne