Gillian Welch & David Rawlings – Palais (Hepburn Springs, Australia)
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are renowned for close harmony singing, and rightly so. But on this southern-hemisphere spring night, as they started singing their first encore at an old theater in the mineral spa mountain region of Victoria, they were in unison — and the already hushed crowd fell so still that nobody seemed to breathe.
This was a new song, “Throw Me A Rope”, which Welch and Rawlings aired several times during their long-overdue first visit to Australia. The song is a kiss-off to a betrayed friendship, with a loping rhythm, a low-lying melody after the fashion of 1970s Neil Young, and chillingly detached lyrics. As Welch and Rawlings sang, “I’ve never been so disabused/I’ve never been so mad/I’ve never been served anything that tasted so bad,” their unison was complete, impossibly perfect. As a friend marveled later, we watched their two mouths move, but only one voice could be heard.
And we were up close enough to be quite certain on that score. It was a dinner and show event, and our tables were set up on the hardwood dance floor, mere feet away from the red velvet-curtained stage. Welch and Rawlings performed with minimal staging: no amps, just one instrumental and one vocal microphone apiece, and a table topped by a vase stuffed with native flowers.
The scene was set by opening act Tim Rogers of Australian power-pop band You Am I. Rogers was relatively scrubbed up for the occasion, and his autobiographical solo material and acoustic versions of You Am I staples such as “Heavy Heart” went down nicely.
Welch and Rawlings stepped out resplendent — she in gauzy dress with cowboy boots and leather jacket, he in suede suit and cowboy hat. They opened with “Orphan Girl”, then drew mostly upon Soul Journey and Time (The Revelator) for the next two hours.
The audience was mainly city folk, with many musicians and hardcore fans in attendance, and the intense focus of the listeners matched what has happening onstage. Rawlings kept his eyes closed, his upper body contorting into circles, keeping time with his astonishing work on his 1935 Epiphone archtop acoustic guitar. It was difficult to take your eyes off him, save to steal glances at Welch — her face grimaced into a reptilian smile to sing, then hunching forward over her guitar as the solos swelled and subsided. Despite their physical proximity to the audience, they retained an extraordinary mystique as performers.
The second encore concluded with Neil Young’s “Albuquerque”, the third with Ralph Stanley’s “Bright Morning Star” — an a cappella version of such pure beauty that the clamoring crowd was finally sated enough to let them go. As the theater emptied, a couple hundred of us stood outside and breathed the mountain air, smiling somewhat deliriously at one another and not saying much. It was just about as perfect, really, as a night could be.