Review: Gillian Welch - Huntsville, AL - Aug. 13, 2011

The music of Gillian Welch is imbued with a special kind of magic...
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Gillian Welch & Dave RawlingsI fear one day I'll become one of those jaded pricks who writes about music long after I've fallen out of love with it and then I have an evening like I did at the Von Braun Center Concert Hall with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings and that day feels anything but inevitable.

Last month I went to Nashville and watched U2 transform a football stadium into a space station with massive, sprawling, epic lighting and special effects, filling the air with anthemic songs that reached the heavens.

Welch and Rawlins' set and stage couldn’t have been more different and yet the heavens were still reached and I walked to my car experiencing that same elation, overcome with the joy of music, uplifted and transformed by humanity's ability to create art and express beauty in all its many forms.

Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings took the stage with two guitars, a banjo, and a harmonica and armed themselves with a cadre of timeless songs from which to choose. Over the course of two sets and two hours, together they told tales of hope, despair, sorrow, heartbreak, love, and murder.

In my review of Welch's long-awaited The Harrow & The Harvest album, I gushed at length at the perfection of her voice. It's even more dazzling live, to see her execute that perfect tone song after song. It's not that she hasn't worked at her craft but her ability to communicate through her songs comes from a natural gift, one that doesn't rely on studio trickery or vocal calisthenics. Her magic comes from a pure place and even though her songs aren't sophisticated arrangements or overdubbed to hell and back, they shine brighter when they're stripped down even further.

The other remarkable takeaway from the evening was the guitar mastery of Dave Rawlings. I've seen Joe Satriani, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Steve Miller, and a host of guitar gods in concert and while they are all more famous and perhaps more technically dazzling, Rawlings takes a backseat to no one. His unique posture when playing is fun to watch and his ability to say so much without gimmicks or excessive solos is astonishing.

The set list was heavy on Harvest material but it was alternated with older tunes and the pacing and sequencing worked to perfection. The receptive audience knew all the material well and responded to it. Rawlins turned in stellar guitar leads on "Scarlet Town" and "Revelator," and "The Way It Goes" had a harder, edgier sound than it did on record. Welch introduced the classic "Make Me Down A Palette On Your Floor" as a tune she learned from Doc Watson before delivering a mournful performance. "Look At Miss Ohio" and "Caleb Meyer," the two set closers, rocked harder than you might expect from an acoustic duo.

They closed the show with the masterpiece from Harvest, "Tennessee" before performing "I'll Fly Away" (a song Welch performed with Allison Krauss on the soon-to-be 10-year old O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack) and then gave a rollicking performance of "Jackson," sending the audience home on one last high note.

Great music heals and inspires and the timeless songs of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings is imbued with a special kind of magic that can make a believer of the skeptical and warm the hearts of the faithful who believe in the power of song.

The full setlist for the show can be found here.