Regardless of how many times David Rawlings and Gillian Welch visit Chattanooga, the experience is one to luxuriate in, an evening of fingerpicked artistry and winsome folk tradition.
It’s not the first time Rawlings and Welch have made the sounds of country, bluegrass and country come alive here, and I hope it won’t be the last.
As we all trickled into the main entry room of the Tivoli Theatre, I was afraid that the severe weather had kept people away, but with each passing minute, more and more people began to arrive. The chill from the 16-degree air followed us in, clinging to us even as we made our way toward the back of the grand foyer and closer to our seats. Coats weren’t discarded wholesale once everyone was seated, and people were rubbing their hands to get some warmth back into them (myself included). But the room would soon turn warm and alive with the comforting echo of good music.
Ostensibly a David Rawlings show—with accompaniment from longtime partner Gillian Welch, bassist Paul Kowert (of The Punch Brothers), guitarist Willie Watson and fiddler Brittany Haas—it was still a communal affair, with Rawlings cuts sitting alongside various covers and Welch originals steeping the room in a wonderful acoustic resonance. His fingers danced across the necks of his guitars, moving faster than I thought possible as he weaved intricate and excitable patterns for us to immerse ourselves in. Welch provided a proper counterpoint in voice and guitar, giving the performance more the feel of an intimate conversation than a simple monologue.
The song selection was as impeccable as ever, with songs pulled from his latest record, “Poor David’s Almanack” (a sleeper wonder from last year), Welch’s own discography and old-timey traditionals. His cover of Ryan Adams’ “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” which Rawlings co-wrote, was a highlight, with Welch telling the story of how neither Adams nor Rawlings really remembers the specific events of that particular night. There’s a breezy comfort that exists between them, an easy rapport that’s been built up over many years, and it shows in every sideways look and uncontrolled laugh.
At one point, they stepped back and allowed Watson to take the spotlight with a cover of Charley Jordan’s “Keep It Clean.” It was a fun and memorable bit that showcased his range and genuine affection for the source material. Another memorable moment was when they performed Welch’s “Wayside/Back In Time,” a lovely folk romp that helped develop the momentum that would keep them going past one intermission and through a mesmerizing encore. A Rawlings/Welch show is less about wanting to hear a certain song and more about reveling in the throwback atmosphere that they conjure with just their voices and guitars.
I’ve now seen them a handful of times, and each show possesses its own personality, its own collective affection of its audience. People cheered midsong and yelled out their appreciation each time Rawlings worked his way through a particularly amazing riff. Sometimes you’ll go to a show and there will be a pervasive silence, but for Rawlings, the applause and whistles seem to drive him to push himself further down the fret of his instrument.
Buoyed by Kowert’s upright bass, Haas’ gorgeous fiddling and Watson’s expressive guitar playing, Rawlings and Welch were given a suitable foundation from which to extol the virtues of years gone by and look ahead to their own rustic version of the future. There were even moments when Haas picked up a guitar and Watson took to a fiddle to bring another level of craftsmanship to the evening. Everyone seemed to be in perfect step with everyone else, creating a sound that had no turbulence, no dissonance, only the smooth echoes of decades gone by.
When the evening finally came to an end, the band members shuffled offstage to a roar of applause and clapping, ample evidence that they had done their jobs well. For a few hours, we were transported to some alternate America where politics gave way to fellowship and hardline rhetoric was beaten back by the strums of an acoustic guitar. It’s what we wanted, and it’s what we needed. And the band was more than happy to oblige. There’s a soothing feeling that hits you when they first start playing and a satisfaction when they end, and the time between those two moments is filled with magic and a brightness that isn’t easily dismissed. And for an evening, we all gladly basked in that warmth and wonder.
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.