Gillian Welch & David Rawlings – Aladdin Theater (Portland, OR)
Gillian Welch’s debut album Revival is such a marvelous recording that expecting her to improve upon it in concert would be asking a lot of even a seasoned performer. But the fact that she could carry it off live without producer T Bone Burnett and the ace session musicians from the record (James Burton, Jim Keltner, Roy Huskey Jr.) was enough reason to put aside any doubts about this young traditionalist’s talents.
Welch, accompanied by talented guitarist and co-songwriter David Rawlings, demonstrated she is the genuine article. The stripped-down and direct approach, just voice and acoustic guitars, highlighted the duo’s heartfelt songwriting skills, but the focus was on Welch’s refreshingly soulful singing. She showed a surprising stylistic range, proving she can’t be easily pigeonholed as just some neo-dust-bowl traditionalist.
“Pass You By”, about an old Ford, took on an even blusier feel live. Similarly, “By the Mark” had more of a pure gospel feel than the recorded version. (Welch and Rawlings also opened their second set with an a cappella gospel number). And “Paper Wings”, with its instant-classic line “I tried to fly / But found that I / Had only paper wings,” was old-time honky-tonk. As much of a vocal stylist as Welch can be, she comes off completely honest without ever seeming forced or put on.
Rawlings’ musical chops and harmony vocals are also impressive; this is more of a duo than might be implied from the record and its marketing. The two share a low-key but engaging stage manner. Welch joked that most of their material is “pretty dour”, and after a unusually lighthearted number, she deadpanned, “Okay, now it’s back to the doom and damnation.”
One of Welch’s most sobering songs, “Annabelle” (“For half of the cotton and a third of the corn / We get a handful of dust”), got a huge crowd response. And the duo selected a handful of covers that further showed off their good taste, especially “Go on Downtown” by Robert Earl Keen (my favorite moment of the night) and Eric Anderson’s “Dusty Box Car Wall”.
As fine as this show was, I left with the sense that Welch and Rawlings’ better days are ahead of them. They were a bit tentative, which seemed to stem from being careful more than anything else. But for a first trip through Portland, Welch drew a reasonable crowd of about 300 and left ’em standing on their feet, yelling for more.