The Endearing Qualities of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
It had been nearly six years to the day since I had seen Gillian Welch and David Rawlings in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the initial The Harrow & the Harvest tour, so I was not about to miss this short mini-tour to celebrate the album’s release on record. Instead of playing the Paramount, they played the outdoor, and covered, Sprint Pavilion at the far end of the downtown walking mall where they had only played once before, with the Felice Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show. While it may have been outdoors, that amphitheater is not nearly as large as others, so there was still an intimacy to the evening. That feel was amplified as everyone around us seemed to know one another, stopping by to chat. It seemed many of them had also seen the 2011 show.
This time was different, however, as the first set was devoted to performing the Harrow & the Harvest album from beginning to finish. The second half was comprised of various songs from their catalog, and “Midnight Train” from Rawlings’ new album. From looking at the set lists from the other shows on this tour, the shows were, song-wise, virtually identical.
But as we all know, no two shows are ever really alike. One of the things I find endearing about Welch and Rawlings is their awkwardness. Not in their music, but rather in their lovable, clearly unrehearsed banter between the songs. A prime example at this show came up when Rawlings broke a string on his banjo and went backstage to change it, leaving Welch alone on stage. Doing her best to fill that space and time, Welch noted that they had never had a banjo string break before, and summed up her sense of isolation with: “I feel like I’m a contestant on some weird game show.”
Then, with string replaced, on the next song, as she strapped on the banjo, Welch said, “Someone once said that a girl with a banjo is unaccountably sexy.” Not only did no one in the audience disagree, there was a howl of approval.
The second set was not a mere compilation of their songs, as Rawlings demonstrated some enticing new licks to several songs, including upending ones in “Miss Ohio.” And just as he was pushing it even further than usual in “Time (the Revelator),” he backed off, teasingly, dipping into some delicious introspective musings. The only unexpected treat was a song they had unearthed for the Bootleg album, “Dry Town,” noting that they had written it right after opening for Johnny Cash.
Different Formats, Different Vibe
“Two’s company, but three’s a party.” The differences between a Welch album and tour and ones by Rawlings are pretty well summed up in that Andy Warhol quote. As a duo, Welch and Rawlings engage themselves in a creative dialogue only they are privy to, speaking a language virtually unknown since the demise of the Great American Songbook composers. But they, of course, do those duos one better, performing their own songs, and letting Rawlings’ guitar work add layer upon layer upon layer of emotional intrigue, exploration, and release. They invite you in, but oftentimes you don’t know exactly what you are, or who you are. Sometimes, not even when the song, or the evening, is over.
When Rawlings becomes the focus, again on album and tour, you feel you are part of a party. As the Machine, Rawlings and Welch open themselves up, something that I feel that even the well-guarded Welch relishes. That was the sense I got in Louisville, when they opened with “Come on Over My House,” which, as I noted in my ND review, made me feel as though they have flung open the doors to the Carter Family store in Poor Valley and invited the audience to a Saturday night hoedown.
Apparently fellow critic Jim Fusilli agrees. In his Wall Street Journal review of Rawlings’ Poor David’s Almanack (released just five days before the Louisville show), Fusilli noted that the album “has the feel of music made on a mountainside back porch for no other reason than the joy of doing so.”
As expected, Welch and Rawlings, along with Willie Watson, Brittany Haas, and Paul Kowert, performed much of new album. The normally unflappable Watson, however, had some difficulty picking up the correct instrument a time or two. But that did not detract from the pace of the show; rather, it became part of the spontaneity that only early shows in a tour seem to muster. Plus, it gives Rawlings cause to howl with laughter. If you have seen him laugh, you know how engaging that can be.
But the evening was not all fun and frivolity. Rawlings did his exquisite “I Hear them All/This Land is Your Land,” a favorite cover, “Queen Jane Approximately,” and “Lindsey Button” from the new album that held extra dimensions live. Another key was that in addition to playing his 1935 Epiphone, Rawlings also played what looked to me like a D’Angelico, and did so quite a bit. Bob Weir plays one, and it is a gorgeous instrument. Welch, not to be left out, also played a second guitar, what looked to be a Gibson Hummingbird. While Haas stayed with a fiddle throughout, there was always some shuffling of instruments among the other four. A fave moment for the crowd was when Rawlings played the banjo, and Haas and Watson played twin fiddles around a single mic.
As you are also aware, both The Harrow & the Harvest and Poor David’s Almanack were released on vinyl for the first time, and unless you were among the first to order them, they are already out of print, waiting on a second pressing. As both LPs are being pressed at Chad Kassem’s Quality Pressings, it is unknown to me on how far back they are in line. What you may be unaware of, however, is that plant is one of the two best in the country, and its pressings are impeccable. In this, Welch and Rawlings leave nothing to chance, nothing awkward here.
Speaking of vinyl, Welch and Rawlings sat down with WNYC the day after their Beacon show in New York and talked about going in that direction. (Listen to it here). This comes after revealing that they had secured their own lathe and cutting head (necessary for an LP to be made) and the quality of which is just the first step of producing a quality pressing. And, in case you were wondering, all their albums were recorded analog.
What this also means is that we will eventually see all their albums on vinyl, analog from start to finish. The only questions are what’s next and when?
Welch and Rawlings had a final attention to detail on the Harrow & Harvest and Poor David’s Almanack LPs. Turn the album cover over to its back side, and you will discover something that’s not there: the ubiquitous UPC bar code. That’s printed instead on the removable shrink wrap. Once removed, the cover and disc itself, like the music within its grooves, stand alone as pieces of art.
Now scroll though photos taken, with Welch and Rawlings’ kind permission, at the Charlottesville and Louisville shows, as well as others taken during the past few years by the ND photographers that have not been posted before.