Some people say that you don't find music--that music finds you when you're ready for it. I typically don't agree with this opinion, but I'm not immune to it. Witness: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. No early adopter, I missed a good 10 years of their collaboration, but these days, I can't get enough of them, which is why I grabbed a ticket to their Fillmore gig, two days ahead of their appearance at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
Gillian Welch, the Fillmore, October 1, 2009: Prior to this gig, several caveats ricocheted around my brain: This isn't Largo. Gillian and David don't officially have a new release to promote. A "normal" Gillian Welch show may not bear any resemblance to the performances I've seen since last fall.
As it turned out, my brain needed to shut the fuck up. Not only did Gillian and David deliver all the highlights I've come to anticipate, but they did it with a bushel of cheer and a spark I hadn't entirely expected. It was, in short, wonderful to behold and to be a part of. And most important, it disabused me of all those lingering preconceptions I had about the duo, despite ample evidence of their playfulness and congeniality.
In fact, it may be a good thing that I've become familiar with their show almost solely through Largo; I suspect it's established the pattern Gillian and David follow these days, whether or not Benmont Tench is present, as he was for this gig. Benmont's expert hand came through beautifully on "It's Too Easy," which kept me guessing as to how he and David would bring the song from its arching bridge back to its foundation. Conversely, "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" showed off Ben's gentler touch.
Overall, the show resembled July's Largo gig, minus most of the musical buddies, as they launched with "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll" and hit many of the same songs. Gillian, of course, took the majority of vocal duties, though David stepped up with "Sweet Tooth" from the forthcoming Rawlings Machine debut. Dave jokingly and modestly played off the plug provided by Gillian, but I'll venture that shopping lists were updated with the newsflash.
Two factors differentiated this show from the other gigs I've seen by them and at the Fillmore. One was the sparseness of the stage. As Gillian pointed out, she and David used no monitors (though Benmont did); they listened to the same mix as us. It's a rare sight at the Fillmore, and it brought to mind one of my favorite passages from their profile in the New Yorker: "Welch and Rawlings's music is deceptively complex, despite its simple components: two voices, two guitars, and four hands."
The second element, if I do say so myself, was the audience. From the get go, this crowd was itching to join in, even more so than at the Rawlings Machine gig from this spring. We sang to almost everything we could almost as soon as we could. More amazing, I swear that a guy not far behind me added perfect harmonies! I can't claim those dulcet tones, but I piped up anyway. For all the intimacy and the exceptions that Largo inspires, being a part of, say, "Red Clay Halo" with 1,000+ other fans brings out an aspect to the song and the show that's hard to replicate.
The audience cheered Gillian and David through two encores that included such fine selections as "Long Black Veil" (my first time hearing their version) and "Jackson." The final push, however, came from David, who urged "one more" to the assembled musicians, now joined by Mike McKinley on mandolin, even as they were moving to set down their instruments. They wrapped up with "I'll Fly Away," and though they didn't ask for our help, we proffered it in abundance.
As the year starts to wind down, no one is more surprised than me that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, whether under her or his moniker, will comprise a big chunk of my concert calendar for 2009--yet it's still not enough. As long as they keep coming back, in either San Francisco or Los Angeles, so will I.
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