Gillian Welch at Strathmore


Strathmore Hall, Bethesda, MD

August 2, 2011

review by Jason McCool for PinkLine Project

Anyone fortunate enough to catch Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at Strathmore Hall Tuesday night experienced two of the finest historically aware performers in country music today, two musicians who trade in images almost as deftly as they trade guitar licks. Indeed, one minor miracle the two pulled off was the near-magical transformation of the large, opulent Strathmore Hall (what Welch referred to as “like playing inside of a birthday cake”) into an alternate world of old-time America: a lonely roadside juke joint at closing time, a barn full of dried hay, a moonlight campfire in the hills of Appalachia… albeit with much better sound. (Do a Google image search on “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” Walker Evans and James Agee’s classic 1941 photojournalism piece on poor Southern sharecroppers, while listening to a Welch/Rawlings song and see if the two don’t line up?) Such is the evocative power of this music, which feels so unlike this fast-paced world, yet so strangely familiar, it draws out of contemporary audiences a focus which is practically prayerful. Every time I’ve heard Welch and Rawlings guys play it’s a consistent presence – while listening, you feel like you’re getting at the authentic core of something, and dare I imagine it has something to do with being an American?

Ever since Jimmy Rodgers laid down wistful tracks about trains back in the 1930s, the success of country music has largely depended upon two elements: simple, catchy melodies framed by compelling storytelling. Over two sets of patiently unfolding songs, Welch and Rawlings aligned themselves within this tradition, and the fact that the two accomplished this through use of nothing beyond voices and acoustic instruments – that “high lonesome sound” historically affiliated with bluegrass singing - speaks to an absolute commitment to their vision: old-timey songs fit for old souls, wistful lovers and melancholiacs, a style of musicmaking which almost completely bucks the glitzy spectacle of most mainstream, “big hat” country music. (Though, for the record, Rawlings DID wear a cowboy hat.)

So what’s perhaps most surprising about Welch and Rawlings’ popularity is its very existence. These subtle, quiet songs receive no play on corporate-controlled country radio, and Welch’s unglamorous, farmgirl persona couldn’t contrast more with the gussied-up image of practically every popular young female country singer today. Outside of some brief exposure gleaned from the top-selling “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack in 2000, Welch’s music has gathered attention mostly through the strong word-of-mouth of dedicated fans, hundreds of whom packed Strathmore. (A world-class hall whose lush acoustics I know mainly from attending Baltimore Symphony concerts; I’m happy to report that the crystal-clean sound was amongst the best I’ve ever heard for a “pop” concert.)

Having just played the Newport Folk Festival with hipster darlings The Decemberists, Welch and Rawlings are in the preliminary stages of a national tour in support of their new and excellent record, “The Harrow & the Harvest,” Welch’s first album in a feels-even-longer eight years, and around half of the songs they played were new. Though musical variety is not an attribute of this show, the simple honesty and emotional directness of the style, not to mention a level of musical chemistry matching “Simon and Garfunkel levels” (no, really) more than makes up. Though one might imagine Welch and Rawlings meeting at a barnyard dance or country fair, they in fact belong to an arranged marriage, having both been placed in the “Country Music Ensemble” in that crucible of country music, Boston, MA (!), while students at the Berklee College of Music.

Although Welch’s honey-soaked voice is the tonal centerpiece, the chemistry’s so perfect, it’s almost unimaginable to hear her accompanied by anyone other than David Rawlings. Rawlings has quietly made a name for himself as a producer working with “” acts like Bright Eyes, Ryan Adams, and Tom Petty, but he also plays flatpick guitar with about as much dexterity as anyone in country music today. Though he’s always been an “in the pocket” player, possessing the uncanny ability to both play “just the right note” and shape a solo architecturally, his playing seemed to take on a more frenetic, virtuosic quality since the last time I heard him. Possessing the physical fluidity of an oak tree, it’s fun to watch his lanky torso writhe around through the music as if it were receiving syncopated electrical charges from the beyond. Also, I’m quite certain that in Heaven, the singers hope to sing harmonies as well as Rawlings does. (A recent Terry Gross interview with Welch on NPR had her discussing how Rawlings possesses the knack of nailing consistently “unexpected” harmony notes.)

Years ago I fell in love with the underexplored byways of American popular music, and I’ve enjoyed how Welch and Rawlings imbue their songs with historical presence. Thus, when the two team up on the patient banjo-strumming and luscious harmonies of Welch’s new song “Hard Times (Ain’t Gonna Rule My Mind No More)” it’s impossible to not hear it in the context of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” quite possibly America’s first “blues” song, if not in musical style, certainly in it’s insistence on empathy as a reaction to collective hardship. (Welch’s lyrics, describing “Camptown men,” perhaps supports the resonance with Foster even further.) Other highlights included new gems like “That’s The Way It Goes,” with its sultry one-note, melody-less patter, the wistful melancholy of “Throw Me a Bone,” and old familiars like the breezy waltz “Dear Someone,” sounding more like a folk song than any folk song ever sounded like a folk song, the patient “Time (The Revelator)” and “Orphan Girl,” recorded by Emmylou Harris and probably Welch’s most well-known song.

Judging from the two instant standing ovations and the four demanded encores (including an unusual rousing cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”), the warm embrace of the full house toward the duo was palpable. It isn’t every day we get to hear music of this grit, delicacy, and tonal intimacy, so thanks to the good people of Strathmore for bringing in Welch and Rawlings for their first show; fans of quality country music in this region certainly look forward to the next visit.