Gillian Welch more than makes up for the cold weather
Avalon, Boston, Nov. 8, 2003
BOSTON - While the earth's shadow blotted out the full moon on this cold, clear, and typically windy Boston night, Gillian Welch's performance shone brightly enough to make up the difference.
Touring in support of her latest album, "Soul Journey," the performance was something of a homecoming for Welch and her longtime partner David Rawlings, both of whom had studied and met at the Berklee School of Music in the early '90s.
In the intervening years Welch's career has exploded, with four critically acclaimed albums under her belt, as well as appearances on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack (plus a small role in the movie) and in the accompanying "Down From the Mountain" tours. Welch might have first come to Boston as an unknown young woman from southern California, but these days she returns as a bona-fide star in her genre.
Hitting the stage shortly after 7:30 before a near full house at the 1,800-capacity club, Welch (clad in a black sweater and long grey skirt) and Rawlings (dressed in a grey suit) got right down to business, launching into the new album's "Wayside/Back in Time" (on which Welch also played harmonica) and "Elvis Presley Blues," from 2001's "Time (The Revelator)."
Switching to banjo for "Rock of Ages" and a rearranged version of "Ruination Day, Part 2" (which Welch noted that she and Rawlings rarely perform these days), Welch wryly commented "Someone told me I was the only person who could play the banjo and make it sound sad. I said, 'Thanks.'"
A rendition of "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor" led to a brief story from Welch in which she said that British singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock had called her earlier in the day to tell her that he was looking at a newspaper article about the reigning Miss Ohio, providing a perfect transition to the new album's "Look at Miss Ohio."
Rounding out the first set were "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll," "Everything is Free," "Wrecking Ball," and "Red Clay Halo," before Welch and Rawlings left the stage for an intermission.
With the pair returning for a second set after a 20-minute break (Rawlings now sporting a white cowboy hat), Welch again turned to the banjo for "My First Lover" and "No One Knows My Name," after which Welch returned to the guitar and performed the new album's "I Had a Real Good Mother and Father" without Rawlings (if not for the nightclub's ventilation system you could have heard a pin drop), after which Rawlings returned for the sprawling "Time (The Revelator)." Although Welch's own religious beliefs continue to be a bit of a question mark, Christian themes ran deep through many of her songs, particularly on "By the Mark" from her first album and one of the second set's real highlights.
Whether she's playing the part of a Christian in the song or if she personally believes the words - "I will know my savior when I come to him/By the mark where the nails have been" - this evening Welch drives home the fact that the number is one of the really great hymns written in the past 20 years before turning the microphone over to Rawlings, rising to the occasion on a cover of Bob Dylan's 1973 number "Rock Me Mama."
A cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression" - recast on this occasion as a slow country blues - worked astonishingly well, emerging as another highlight of the second set; thanks in no small part to the two inspired, stinging solos Rawlings took. Considering that she and Rawlings only added it to their set recently when she realized she knew all the words, one hopes that it'll stick around for a while. Rounding out the second set was the haunting murder ballad "Caleb Meyer" from Welch's 1996 debut before she and Rawlings again left the stage.
Returning for the encores, Welch and Rawlings performed the as-yet-unreleased "Throw Me a Rope" and "I'll Fly Away," a number she and Alison Krauss had performed on the "O Brother" soundtrack, introducing it by saying "I think every show I ever saw Bill Monroe do closed with this song - so we're going to take a tip from Bill," then leaving the stage once more before returning for a final encore, a rendition of Townes Van Zandt's "White Freight Liner Blues."
Although Welch and Rawlings eschewed some fan favorites this evening - "Tear My Stillhouse Down," "Orphan Girl," and "Dear Someone" chief among them - it says much of the depth of Welch's relatively small catalogue that she can fill an evening with top-notch material and still leave out some of her best songs. By the time the show was over the moon had regained most of its fullness. But in the wake of such a performance, few took notice of the moon.