Gillian Welch & David Rawlings – Cat’s Cradle (Carrboro, NC)
More than a few bands from the alt-country nation would do well to listen to Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. For as the Pharisees of old assumed the trappings of righteousness while bearing wickedness in their hearts, so a lot of alt-country is but indie-rock in a Nudie suit.
By contrast, Welch & Rawlings seem to draw directly from the wealth of feeling that has always made true country music so enriching. The charmingly self-effacing duo held a near-sellout crowd spellbound on this night. Playing all the songs from their quietly stunning 1996 debut, Revival, along with several choice covers, Welch & Rawlings proved more than deserving of the attention they’ve received in the past year.
While Revival was billed as a Welch solo effort, the live show made plain that Welch & Rawlings are a full and equal partnership. As Gurf Morlix did for Lucinda Williams and Clay Barnes has done for Steve Forbert, Rawlings provides a distinctive guitar signature to Welch’s overall sound. Never cliched or showy, Rawlings stroked eloquent phrase after elegant phrase from his small-body Epiphone acoustic, leaving the players in the audience with their jaws resting firmly on the floor.
But that’s not Rawlings’ central contribution, nor the point of his most essential connection to Welch. That comes in their singing, which is the source of the duo’s real strength and depth. Welch has one of the most convincing voices in alternative country; that’s a special trait, and it’s different from saying her voice is compelling or technically accomplished. Quite simply, you believe her when she sings. Whether she went all dreamy and diaphanous on the Patsy Cline homage, “Paper Wings”, or rough-edged and carnal on “Tear My Stillhouse Down”, she drew the audience in completely.
Over the course of the show, however, I realized that thinking of Welch as a “lead” singer is totally wrong-headed. It is because Rawlings is no more a “back-up” singer than Ira Louvin was. Their sound is, indeed, traced on the template drawn by country “brother” duos of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s — the Delmores, Monroes, Louvins and Stanleys who popularized the Appalachian “high lonesome” harmonizing style. Rapid-fire bluegrass has drained that tight-harmony style of all feeling and rendered it cliche, but Welch & Rawlings have reclaimed it, and given it both a more contemporary and a slightly more bluesy feel through their preference for minor keys and cooler tempos. It was there in virtually every song of the show, though the hard white-gospel of “By The Mark” was clearly written as a showcase for the style.
When their voices joined in that intimate twining, the power of this tradition broke over me like a wave. The term “country” doesn’t begin to describe this hard-scrabble, bone-deep music of longing and loneliness and loss. Gillian Welch & David Rawlings resoundingly made that point. They reminded me that the very best term for this kind of music may simply be “soul.”