Gillian Welch live at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, GA – Aug. 6, 2011
Gillian Welch is one of the best songwriters of our time, and Dave Rawlings one of its most intuitively gifted instrumentalists. Just stating the obvious to get it out of the way.
I wouldn’t call myself a Gillian Welch superfan. When I turn on music for the sheer joy of it, I tend to steer toward much more demonstrably emotive singers like Patty Griffin, or more blatantly skillful artist-technicians like Chris Thile or Prince. Gillian’s music, while admittedly brilliant, requires more than all that. Much like our current president, our democratic republic in general, and these times we live in, it calls on us to do more than just absorb and observe. There’s work to do with listening to Gillian Welch’s records. Put your laptop away, put your phone in the other room. Finish cooking. Fix a drink. Find somewhere to sit, or choose a destination (if you’re listening in the car). Get out all the words you need to get out right now. And then, only then, does it make sense to press play. You have to bring something to the music. It’s not going to do everything for you.
The important thing about Gillian Welch’s music is that you have to come to it.
Generally, what you bring is a lifetime of cultural context and prejudices. You bring noise and color. You bring a body stacked with clothing. The undressing and simplifying, it turns out, is worth nothing if you – the listener – show up with a blank slate. As a matter of fact, the music she makes acknowledges there’s no such thing as a listener with a blank slate. All of us living in this world are buckets full of shit. You have to be willing to let her music unpack you. That’s the thing.
All this is so much work. It’s work to listen to Gillian Welch, which is why I wouldn’t call myself a superfan. I reserve her music for certain moments. Sometimes it takes me a long time to get there.
And so it was with her set in Atlanta on Saturday night.
It’s fitting that my phone battery died within minutes of the show starting (thanks to an hourlong commute to get there, the age of my phone, and how much juice the mapping functionality uses). I couldn’t tweet about it. I couldn’t take notes on it. I was stuck with the precarious reporter tools of an unfettered attention span and entirely shake-able memory.
I can tell you this was the setlist, because whoever manages Gillian’s Twitter feed does the thankless task of tweeting these out every day or two after shows. Before I saw this, though, my memory had held onto “Tear My Stillhouse Down,” “Caleb Meyer,” “Time (the Revelator),” “The Way It Goes,” “Hard Times,” and a spot-on cover of “Jackson.” Dave got a one-song shot at pulling from his Dave Rawlings Machine record, and went with the ambitiously pleonastic “I Hear Them All,” which was made stirring mainly from the fact that he pulled out three or four of the lesser-known verses from Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” to play in the middle there. The crowd didn’t seem to be at all familiar with these verses, but was pleased by the one about the relief office:
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office, I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Was this land made for you and me?
And they sung along with increasing pride and fervor on every turn of the song’s iconic chorus. Fresh off our country’s debt ceiling debate debacle, it felt like a timely release, a reminder of who really runs the place (or should). It was that sort of thing I was talking about above. Gil and Dave singing at us is one thing, but when everyone joined in and brought their own something to the show, it underscored exactly what it is that makes Gillian Welch’s work so powerful and provocative.
I was thinking of all this as I watched them kick off their first encore (there were two – reading Amos’s post about the FIVE they did in Asheville the night before made me almost feel gipped until I remembered what I saw in Atlanta). They played “Time (the Revelator)” – a song I’ve heard innumerable times in the past ten years since it was released on the album of the same name.
It was an album released in a different age, it seems now, yet the meaning of that song is mindblowing when you consider the past ten years. I won’t walk you through that decade again (I already did when I posited we’ll all be okay, last week). But, I will say this: Consider time. Really consider it – not only as a concept but as a character in our lives, one who stands before a series of curtains, slowly unveiling challenges and lessons. Like that game show “Let’s Make a Deal” (us in our silly costumes, vying for prizes). Consider July of 2001 (when that record dropped), and consider the you of today paying a visit to the you of then.
There’s so much in that thin straddle between the personal and political which can be brought to that song, which can be brought to the old you, which can have survived or transcended that decade – and will the next one.
Every day is getting straighter
Time’s the revelator
These are absurd times we live in, after all. They’re muddled with madness and proselytizing, white noise and natural disasters, debt pile-ups, honking horns, buzzing phones, arguments fuming from the mouths of reality television stars. There is so much available, so many opportunities to complicate every waking moment, to shout through the noise, to fight fire with fire. And then there’s Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, over there in the corner being quiet and slow, understated and honest. If you want what’s in their world, you’re going to have to walk over there and join them. But don’t come empty handed. There’s work to do.
PS – So what about the show, Kim? If my technology had worked, this might be a different review. I might have had notes and comments, song-by-song recaps. But who needs that when there’s the music itself? I will say, though, that it was good. The second set eclipsed the first by a long shot. It was that first encore before I understood how far in their pocket I was. And then, like time itself, it was over too soon. Go see them if you can.