Marlon Brando, Pocahantos and Gillian Welch (October 19, 2011, Pittsburgh, Pennsyvania)
I visited Nashville for the second time on May 19, 1994 — the first was as a young boy when we caught an Opry show with relatives– visiting a friend who was there pitching songs. While I was kinda beat, my buddy wanted to go out and I suggested The Station Inn as I knew Townes had played there. He quickly agreed adding that there would be a duo new to town that was making the songwriter circles that he’d like me to hear.
That duo turned out to be Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. While certainly energetic, enthusiastic and earnest, they did not bowl me over, unlike 1987 when I walked cold into an Austin bar and heard Lucinda Williams perform all the songs that would later appear on the Rough Trade record. No, it seemed they might be trying a bit too hard. It was as though the clothes they were wearing did not entirely suit their bodies.
The revelatory moment came nearly two years to the day later on May 18, 1996 when I caught them at the Prism in Charlottesville. Their first album had just been released the month before, and while I had yet to hear it, this time they were more cohesive. Their first song, “Tear My Stillhouse Down” had won the Chris Austin Songwriting contest at the 1993 MerleFest. Gil’s voice was richer, not overly striving for an authenticity that may or may not have been her own. David’s guitar playing was less timid and together displayed a repoire that was simpatico. So in tune with one another they were halves of one person. And I wondered, who had changed, them or had I simply caught up?
While I saw them several times after that, it was their performance at the May 24, 2000 concert at the Ryman celebrating the movie, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” (released seven months later) and in anticipation of what everyone considers to be the album of the decade just past, “Time (The Revelator)” in 2001 that Gil and Dave – as we fans affectionately call them – solidified their “sound” and firmly established themselves as the top Americana artists/performers.
Having lived in Pittsburgh some years back, I was somewhat surprised when driving into town that afternoon that it seemed deserted, my downtown hotel near empty. Even Jerry’s Records and Mineo’s in Squirrel Hill and the Warhol on the North Shore had an abnormally few patrons. It was dead.
But, however lacking in energy the town was, it was more than made up as fans began entering the stately Byham Theater at the foot of the Roberto Clemente Bridge that connect downtown to the North Shore. There was a buzz in the air. As usual, with lots of time I struck up conversations with many who were around. It seemed there were a lot of parents and their high school/college children in the audience. On one side of me was a father and son who lived in the same town where Gil’s mother was from and on the other a woman who had seen them in Chicago and came into town just for the performance.
This was the fourth, and likely final, time I would see them on this tour. So, already I was feeling a sense of nostalgia, but I was not about to let that prevent me from absorbing the experience to come.
As with the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, I find that the more formal the venue, the more reserved an audience can be. It was like that until Gil made a similar observation, noting the relationship between music and beautiful architecture. Whereupon, a man shouted, “You’re the prettiest thing in the room.” Gil responded, “Thanks. Are you talking to me or Dave?” After that, there was no more ice, the audience slipped into it’s warm and fuzzy slippers to have a two hour conversation with some old friends.
That’s the striking thing about nearly all of the for or five dozen times I have seen them (yes, really) – their performances are dialogues with the audience. Your mind drifts, thinking of lovers past, wrongs both committed and felt. You leave the theatre not just fulfilled, but feeling like a different person. Something happened that changed you a bit, something happened to make you grow a little more, something happened to make you want to be a better person. I try not to exaggerate as I have spoken to others who have had similar experiences.
While Gil and Dave have never been overtly political, many of the lyrics and themes in their songs carry on the Woody Guthrie tradition while personalizing them. The recent Occupy movement, as well as what lead to that organic uprising, can be seen as shedding new light on their performances. Primary example is the song that Dave most often takes the lead on, “I Hear Them All/This Land Is Your Land.” The rendition is so full of fire, defiance and community that it could well serve as Occupy’s anthem. Their performance of the song was greeted with the longest and most rousing applause.
As with the other stops since July, the setlists keep changing. In Pittsburgh they performed four songs I had yet to hear on this tour, with my personal highlight being the extremely moving and mournful rendition of Neil Young’s “Pocahantos.” It was one of their four encores. While it is a moving song, the Occupy movement and the state of our country today gave it an extra resonance.
The Pittsburgh show was just days after the Americana Music Festival in Nashville and as much as I enjoyed myself there, the music, seeing old friends and making new ones, it was reminder of how extremely unique Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are, their music, their performances and the way two instruments and their harmonies can both quiet and rally an audience.
I have been moved in many ways by many artists, Luis Bunuel, Lester Young, Mark Rothko and Henry James are just a few. Gil and Dave have a similar effect on me.
If you have been unable to see them on tour, Gil and Dave are featured in the most recent Austin City Limits PBS show performing songs from the “The Harrow and the Harvest.” That performance is also available on ACL’s website:
(All photographs by Amos Perrine, with the kind permission of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Byham Theater, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 19, 2011.)