There are some performers that I can watch over and over again and there are others that, if I’ve seen them a few times before, then that’s enough. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who performed at Knight Theater Saturday, are one of the former.
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen them, but I could watch them every weekend for a year. Their shows are simple – just the two of them, two acoustic guitars, a banjo, a harmonica, and a couple of mics. She stands kind of crooked, tapping her cowboy boot. He stands tall and straight often bouncing on his toes. The sound is pure and beautiful and makes you realize just how spare good music can be compared to the layers and layers of production, instruments, and (sometimes computer-aided) backing vocals that listeners have become accustomed to today. That’s not to say I don’t love some cheesy, overproduced pop music too. But what Gillian Welch and David Rawlings do is truly economical in economically hard times. They travel in a car with equipment they can probably carry in one load.
Watching them also almost transports me to another era, a simpler time when this type of performance was the norm. At some point in the show I always find myself thinking about what my grandmother might have looked like in the fifties and of those "haunted theater" episodes of TV series where flashbacks show a band playing on stage decades ago. It's so quiet and the harmonies are so pristine. The songs aren’t complete throwbacks (I probably wouldn't dig them as much if they were), but there’s something vintage about the entire act. It helps that the couple’s usually vintage instruments and dress – this time a denim sundress for her and a fitted blazer and white cowboy hat for him – could come from anywhere in time in the past 60 years. (Note - the photo above isn't from last night, but she was wearing the same dress).
The duo started its show with “Tear My Stillhouse Down” from the 1996 debut album, “Revival.” “Scarlet Town,” which opens the long awaited new album, “The Harrow & The Harvest,” followed. “The Way It Goes” and “My First Lover” weren’t far behind. A few requests were raised to which Welch said that they’d once done an all requests show and found that all the good stuff was played first and then they were left with 45 minutes to fill. Those usual suspects – upbeat songs like “Red Clay Halo” (which concluded the first set), “Elvis Presley Blues,” and “I Want to Sing that Rock n’ Roll” - all made the cut of course. Those aren’t my personal favorites, but they get the crowd going. For some reason it’s the dark depressing ones that I long to hear.
We got some of those too, especially during the second half which featured new songs “Down Along the Dixie Line,” “Hard Times” and “Tennessee” (the one where I zoned out and stepped back in time). “Six White Horses” (also from the new album) was a highlight. They performed it at one microphone with Welch slapping her legs to the rhythm and clogging for a portion of the song. It made for an instant crowd favorite. Rawlings led “Ruby” from his David Rawlings Machine record. “(Time) The Revelator,” what I consider the pinnacle of any Welch/Rawlings set, was next. It’s one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite albums and it contains my favorite guitar solo. I’m not much for solos, but Rawlings’ flat picking always astounds me and its somehow always fitting and restrained. I enjoy how that particular solo evolves. It was killer as always. “That’s the Way the Whole Thing Ends” fittingly ended the regular set.
The place erupted for an encore. We were treated to two. The first included “Look at Miss Ohio” (one of the requests from earlier) and “I’ll Fly Away,” which had the crowd, appropriately reserved up to that point, clapping and singing along. The second encore consisted of two covers (both coincidentally done by Johnny Cash). Those were Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” and a joyous version of “Jackson.”
The reception was warm. It’s been eight years since their last album. In that time they’ve played Neighborhood Theatre, opened for Norah Jones at Ovens, and played Asheville and nearby Merlefest, but there was just a special buzz and anticipation about this show.