There are some artists who calmly and casually inhabit worlds of beauty and rolling pastoral landscapes. These musicians create a place where influence, inspiration and experience collide and form a truly impressive collection of sights and sounds. And nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the music of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Their wondrous bucolic partnership explores the traditional sounds of Appalachia mixed with a more modernist turn of folk and bluegrass conventions. There’s nothing remotely ordinary about their music. There’s a great deal of history buried within each song, as their work has roots going back 100 years.
And there was a great wash of history flowing through the grand surroundings of the Tivoli Theatre last night, which is where Welch and Rawlings just so happened to find themselves playing to a packed house. Neither artist is a stranger here-they’ve played a handful of times before an equally awed and densely packed crowd. But there seemed to be something special in the air, a collective need for resolution and community after a year that saw so many of our musical heroes pass away and was fraught with so much violence and discord. Maybe we all just needed to feel like we shared a personal connection with one another, even if it was only for a few hours.
There was no opener-they simply strolled out to a roar of applause and dozens of whistles and took their place in the center of the stage. As expected, there was plenty of audience participation and interaction between Welch and everyone present, although Rawlings would occasionally take his turn addressing us with a quick quip or addition to a story that was being told. And over the next two hours, not including a short intermission halfway through their performance, they lit up the theater with stories of past shows, memorable musical experiences and songs that spoke of an honest, earnest love and an understanding of the transformative nature of music.
They covered a lot of territory over the course of the evening, drawing from numerous records and highlighting certain covers that were given the Welch and Rawlings treatment. There was even a raucous rendition of “Happy Birthday” sang to Pete, the guy working the soundboard. And while the entirety of the night was given over to acoustic ruminations and the twang of a banjo, it was filled with a vast and untouchable diversity. If there was ever a concert to make a case for the range and viability of the acoustic guitar, this was it.
Rawlings’ fingers moved like translucent lightning come down from heaven across the fret of his guitar, a dense mass of plucked notes and curled rhythms that held us all spellbound and gasping for air. And all the while, Welch’s gorgeous voice lifted us all from our seats and positioned us somewhere in the upper atmosphere. The whole evening felt spectral, as if we were watching and hearing the motions of ghosts and memories called up from the past.
They roared through songs such as “Revelator,” “The Way It Goes” and “Down Along the Dixie Line,” while also making time to draw back the pulse and noise, and reveal a deeper and more subtle emotional connection. But even with the songs that possessed a quieter soul, there was a momentum built up that stayed with all of us for the breadth of the show. There were moments of transcendental beauty, such as when we all sang along to “I’ll Fly Away” in the first encore or the joyous singalong that occurred during “Look at Miss Ohio.”
We traveled the length of dozens of folk histories, with stops in bluegrass and traditional territories. Welch and Rawlings have such an immaculate chemistry onstage that it’s impossible not to simply smile and relax when they start talking and singing. And as with their past shows I’ve seen, this one was a combination of revelation and release. They even touched on the passing of Guy Clark with a touching cover of “Dublin Blues.”
They ended the show (and second encore) with a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” a surprisingly robust and remarkable bit of adaptation. And before the last notes faded from their strings, we were all on our feet, cheering and applauding for an evening that gave us all a respite from the darkness outside. They thanked us and bowed, earning our admiration and respect with each bit of gracious deferment. And as we all shuffled out the doors into a cold night, the warmth we were given inside was still there to keep our hearts aflame for a little bit longer.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 9 a.m. on 1/3/17 to correct typographical errors.