It's a treat when you get to see a favorite artist play live for the very first time, and that much more special when the performance exceeds even your highest expectations. So it was for me last night when Gillian Welch and David Rawlings hit the Variety Playhouse. They don't have a new record to support -- in fact, they haven't released once since Soul Journey in 2003, and if a new one is in the works, they didn't mention it. So last night's show was just a troll through their spendid back catalog (with a few choice covers thrown in), and a chance for the crowd to sit back and marvel at their stunning musicianship.
From her musical aesthetic (which she calls "primitive American") to her lovely, plaintive voice, and even to her physical features and the way she dresses, Gillian is a performer who seems to have been transported to the 21st Century from the days of the Dust Bowl and old-time radio hours. And Dave Rawlings is, quite simply, one of the most jaw-dropping guitar players I've ever witnessed. His intricate acoustic picking -- over, around and through the relatively simple country, folk, blues and gospel melodies that are their stock in trade -- literally had members of the crowd shaking their heads in amazement. What I didn't expect was the level of energy, enthusiasm and outright joy that emanated from the stage and truly electrified the sold-out house. For years I'd heard that a Gillian Welch show could be a lot like going to a recital -- you'd hear those great songs and see some spectacular playing, but in a hushed, almost overly-reverent environment. Last night's show, though, was more like a tent revival. In fact, the only concession to the "seriousness" of the occasion that I noticed was that the bartenders poured beers out of the bottles that they usually hand over, and into plastic cups. I suppose those do make a lot less noise when the spirit of the music sweeps you up and you drop your drink on the floor, which no doubt happened to more than a few folks last night.
MP3: Gillian Welch & David Rawlings - "I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll" (live at Merlefest, Wilkesboro, NC - April 26, 2002)