Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at Ascend Amphitheater – AmericanaFest 2015
After milling around on Broadway for a bit, among the throngs of Saturday night drunks, tourists, buskers, and screaming bachelorette parties, we made our way to the Ascend Amphitheater for AmericanaFest. Due to a misprinted schedule, we missed Steve Earle, but we caught him back in June at Kate Wolf Festival, so we couldn’t complain. Loretta Lynn was really a charming show. Elegant performance, top-notch band, predictably slick Nashville production. She did the hits. She wore a floor length gold sequinned dress and said it was so heavy she had to do a few songs sitting down. Her voice is still so strong, she just radiates authentic authority and a powerful grace that epitomizes the reasons why Country music exists at all.
Now, I have seen Gillian Welch and David Rawlings about six times, including their first big tour, back in the mid 90’s. If you’ve ever spent time with them you know that they are some of the most humbly masterful, down-to-earth performers alive today. The songs are killer, the singing is gorgeous, and if you didn’t realize it, David Rawlings is as dazzling a guitar-slinger as Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Garcia, Tony Rice or Nels Cline. This was the best performance I’ve seen them do. They walked out in matching white Nudie suits, Welch saying they’d gone home to change about three songs into Loretta’s set, realizing she was going to be a hard act to follow.
But oh yeah, they did. It was indeed a righteous show. They did a few songs off The Harrow & the Harvest, a few from Soul Journey, some from Time (the Revelator), a Dave Rawlings Machine tune and “Caleb Myer” from Hell Among the Yearlings. They encored with a lovely arrangement of “Hey Mister Tambourine Man” (this year is the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s electrified performance at Newport) that gave me ecstatic chills and wet my eyes for the second time in their set. They are always a treat to watch: such beautiful, weird, alien-like, scrawny beings (especially in the Nudie suits). Welch did some hamboning — she said before the song that she hoped there were no professional hamboners in the audience — and clogged a fine rhythmic figure while David played banjo and harmonica on one tune. Hearing these two people make such big music on two instruments, with two voices, after an eight-piece band was testament to the transcendent, transformative aspect of music: in truth, the power of song resides in small, potent things.
Their harmonies weave in and out of each other like twin spirits caught in a waterfall, and they play guitars together as if each were on the other’s instrument – their intuitive connection and kung fu-like fluidity make their voices and instruments sound like a singular thing. While Welch holds down solid, earthy rhythm parts on a honey-toned Gibson J-50 or plunks out clawhammer banjo riffs, Rawlings plays fiery leads that always manage to hit all the right clanging tritones and tease dissonance but ultimately display a masterful sense of harmony. At certain points, he hits notes that do not seem to exist. He is somehow able to pull off ascending and descending scales at once. It has been said he looks at times like the little ’35 Epiphone Olympic is possessing him – he writhes and tilts sideways as he wrings out crazy runs and flurries, punctuating his parts with stunning percussiveness. Certainly the guitar’s spirit had him tonight. Several times — including a long outro for “Time (the Revelator)” — Rawlings’ avant garde approach to post-bluegrass picking took turns worthy of Mark Ribot, then veered into harmonic territory so strange and bewildering, we thought he was about to make a mistake, then suddenly almost channeling Ornette Coleman, until it all swung back into the ordinary universe of plain old virtuoso picking and suddenly made sense.
The duo won a lifetime achievement award earlier this week at the Americana Music Awards, and this performance shows how they earned it. They have excavated ruins of ancient musics, honestly borrowed from the heart and soul of rural Americana and put their compositions together with delicacy and grace that is as inspiring as it is deeply cathartic. Their willingness to take what could be simple country folk songs into strange improvisational territory sets them apart from most artists they might appear, at a glance, to resemble. For artists who aren’t yet 50, the idea of a lifetime of achievement suggests interstellar possibilities as they continue to work their craft. Gillian deadpanned that David was considering taking up shuffleboard and that she would pursue ceramics. Their last encore brought everyone to their feet, and we all sang along to “I’ll Fly Away”. In the end, we were a cappella together, and with polyphonic harmonies going, the crowd of several hundred who stuck around sounded, surprisingly, quite good. That’s what happens when masterful players lead an audience to special places.
photo by Amos Perrine