My First Lover: Gillian Welch at Moonlite Gardens (Cincinnati, Ohio 8/31/2011)
Cincinnati was the town of my youth. It was so conservative that it would later prosecute an art museum curator for exhibiting pornography (the Mapplethorpe photographs) and a little old lady for feeding nickels and dimes into expired parking meters. However, it was no so genteel as there were plenty of honky tonks in the Appalachian ghetto — most famous for the pug-nosed Pete Rose — that lined the streets and alleys between the hilltop university and downtown. Still in my impressionable teens — with a back drop of first generation off the farm families — my own musical development was enhanced by seeing the Mothers of Invention on a Halloween night where I distinctly remember Frank Zappa addressing the largely freak audience: “Don’t fool yourselves. You’re all wearing uniforms.”
While Wednesday night was a different night, decades of other musical performances tucked away like attic treasures, my uniform remained largely unchanged, faded Levi’s contrasted with a dark shirt, trading hip Frye boots for comfortable Mephisto’s.
Moonlite Gardens is the only remnant from Cincinnati’s original amusement park along the Ohio River, Coney Island. Built in the 1920’s, it is beautiful space, with a U-shaped verandah and a moderately-sized open space in front of the stage, that once was the home to big band dancing, dinner and courtship rituals. Now, it seems to be used primarily for wedding receptions and some live performances.
Gil and Dave had played here before and it was twilight when they took the stage on what was still a hot and humid day — or, as in an overheard conversation, “What are you reading?” “Kafka.” “It’s too hot for Kafka.”
But, apparently it was not too hot for a full suited Dave with his now trademark white cowboy hat, which necessarily came off a few times during the evening. As they took the stage, Dave doffed his hat and Gil waved to an audience of ardent admirers — many of whom I spoke with were first timers — and went straight into “Orphan Girl.”
No one was disappointed. While Ohio performance crowds can be somewhat reticent, no so this one on the only stop in the state on this portion of what has to be Gil and Dave’s most ambitious tour. Young girls milled about the dance floor, children scurried between parental types and older fans filled the seated areas. There are, it seems, two audiences at a Gillian Welch performance: one to hear the music and the other to experience the trance-like nature the music evokes. I tend to visit the latter planet most often. Leonard Cohen is the only other artist whose live performances become more than a sum of its parts, taking you to an edge of you never knew was there, then handing the altered reality back to you.
Dave’s guitar playing has always been what separates them from other folks — poignant as a wineberry underscoring bittersweet Gil’s vocals and, where necessary, punctuating with such a ferocity that you wonder what keeps the instrument in one piece.
But, on this tour I have heard a maturity I had not heard before replete with overtones and undertones and rhythms within melodies that would be astounding coming from two or three players, but incredible when you open your eyes and see only one lead guitarist. I say this with some hesitation as it could have been there all along and I am simply able to hear it for the first time.
But I am certain of one thing — Dave’s guitar playing is an experience that can only be known live. As invigorating as the studio recordings are, you cannot know the real Gillian Welch and David Rawlings until you hear them live.
And live they have been on this tour. With the set lists noticeably different every night, I have noticed nary an awkward moment and even the occasional flub has resulted in moments worthy of Johnny Carson. In other words, when things go well, it’s great and when things go awry it’s better.
While the set list below mostly speaks for itself, it invariably are the songs not often performed live are the most memorable for me. This time it was “Barroom Girls” along with Townes’ “White Freight Liner Blues” close the second set and “Jackson” as the final encore.
While lovers may be like runners — the good ones leaving no tracks — this tour has been full of many generous moments and some very generous hearts.