A number of years have passed since Gillian Welch and David Rawlings played this area. A number of years also went by without a new Gillian Welch record. In interviews, the pair have been candid about the fact that they just didn’t think that any of the new material they were writing—about two or three albums’ worth, by their count—was any good. Nevertheless, during that time, they kept touring as their stature grew and grew; now, instead of packing the 500-seat local club, they’re playing the 2100-seat Peace Center.
As she stood with Rawlings on the giant stage, usually home to affairs like traveling Broadway productions, Welch joked, “Clearly, we could have brought a bigger band”. When someone yelled out that they could have played at the town’s smaller venue instead, Rawlings joked that that would mean that only half as many people would be able to see them play. What’s more, it would be the most organized half, and you didn’t want to get those people in a room together.
What surprises many people who see Welch and Rawlings for the first time is how genuinely funny they are. They have an easy rapport with each other and with the audience, and don’t mind making fun of themselves. What’s also readily apparent is that they’re playing music on a surprisingly elevated level. Their singing—influenced by acts like the Stanley Brothers and the Louvin Brothers—provides an intriguing mixed-gender take on traditional harmony singing. The warm bottom-end sound of Welch’s Gibson acoustic perfectly complements the high, nasally tones Rawlings wrangles out of his ancient Epiphone Olympic, and there’s a road-forged form of mind-reading between them that informs every song. This is apparent to some degree on their albums, but when it first hits you live, as with the opening chords of show-opener “Scarlet Town” in Greenville, it puts you on notice that you’re in the presence of something unique.
With Welch dressed in a simple dress and cowboy boots and Rawlings dressed in a monochromatic gray suit and shirt combo, the pair definitely had a little bit of a “child of light/child of dark” vibe going. His eyes constantly shadowed by his cowboy hat, his stance hardly changing the entire night, Rawlings had the steely composure of an assassin (or as Welch put it, a “Man of Mystery”). As the live show’s not-so-secret weapon, Rawlings typically plays the melody lines in a constant state of near-soloing while Welch keeps lockstep rhythm. There’s obviously some sleight-of-hand and showmanship to what Rawlings does, but there are also countless moments when you just shake your head in wonder and say to yourself, “That ain’t right”. As with most Gillian Welch shows, the crowd responded to nearly every solo with hoots and hollers and cheering, and heck, there’s no arguing he earned them.
For all that, a Welch and Rawlings show finds itself in a bit of a fight against the darkness. As transcendent as some of their music can be (I’d put 2001’s Time (The Revelator) on the list of best albums, well, ever), Welch and Rawlings don’t typically write cheery music. Their songs are populated by orphans, addicts, ghosts, and other people under the wheels. Their most uptempo song, “Caleb Meyer”, is about a woman surviving a rape attempt by slashing her attacker’s throat with a broken bottle, as “I felt his blood run fast and hot around me where I laid”. As they sing on “Dark Turn of Mind”, “You know some girls are bright as the morning / And some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind”.
What’s more, their most recent effort, The Harrow and the Harvest is a mellow, even sleepy affair. With the night’s set list borrowing heavily from the new material, moments of levity and sunshine were doubly important. Welch joked early on that anyone in the crowd who was familiar only with her work on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was in for a long night. They certainly did their best to keep things lively, with liberal amounts of humor in between songs, between-set music from Elvis and Chuck Berry, and nearly every uptempo song they could dredge from their catalog. “Caleb Meyer” was aggressive, with the duo’s harmonies climbing and Rawlings’ solos escalating with each pass. “Red Clay Halo” had the crowd clapping along, and “Sweet Tooth” (from Rawlings’ A Friend of a Friend solo album) rocketed the energy level up. Heck, we even got knee-slapping percussion and clogging from Welch on “Six White Horses”.
With the duo’s catalog (counting the Rawlings disc) reaching six albums, it must be a challenge to construct a set list that accurately represents the duo’s sound without overdoing it, or without a “Lotus Eaters” haze overtaking the crowd. For the most part, their more spry (“but no more cheery”, as Welch joked) songs are well represented, providing much-needed moments of release for the audience. Too many mellow songs, beautiful though they are, could lull the audience into a state of contented acceptance. If you’ve ever heard recordings of Simon and Garfunkel playing at colleges in the ‘60s, it has the dusty and polite vibe of a poetry reading. Welch and Rawlings avoid this trap, but what would you expect of a duo who write songs so steeped in traditional forms of music, but who can make it sound not only of today, but often timeless?
If this all sounds like nitpicking and over-thinking the whole thing, let me state for the record that I wouldn’t have changed a thing about the show. It was uniformly excellent. This marks my fifth time seeing them perform and every time I think they can’t possibly elevate their craft any more, yet they always surprise me. Seeing them for the first time in so long, though, I’m left with one question: “Why not a live album during all those fallow years before the harvest?”.