Gillian Welch, the Fillmore, October 2, 2011: I've been cursed with bad timing for Gillian Welch shows recently. After flying down to L.A. at the smallest notice for all those appearances at Largo, I passed on their recent gigs in the North Bay and at the Henry Miller Library. Back in July when the new record came out, I happened to be halfway across the country. I was resigned to a half-assed experience at Hardly Strictly, but they saved me from disappointment. It took them long enough to announce this gig, but I wasted no time in getting the tickets.
Before Gillian and David took the stage, someone in the audience hatched a plan and spread it around: We'd sing happy birthday to Gillian at the start of the show. I'm happy to say a good chunk of the crowd went through with it, even if no one bothered to coordinate the start and it sounded like each person was on his or her own time. The sentiment came through at least.
The problem with blogging without notes, a week after the show, which itself was the endcap to several days stuffed with music, is that my memory fails me, and I can only offer impressions of the evening. I can tell you that unlike the last time I saw them at the Fillmore, Gillian and David used no monitors at all, further stripping their set and falling even deeper in line with their seeming ethos of sticking to the barest essentials. Conversely, a huge print of a tree draped the back of the stage, which I assumed was part of the new touring environment until Gillian thanked the Fillmore crew for transplanting the spirit of the festival indoors.
|Photo by Steve Wrubel|
If I recall correctly, they opened with "Orphan Girl," but now that I think about it, I'm not so sure. Regardless, it's safe to say the set concentrated on songs from the new record. In fact, I think they hit every single title from The Harrow & the Harvest, but don't quote me on that. Among the new songs, "Hard Times" is my favorite, and it makes my heart hurt every time I hear it. I don't want to get into one of those rants about justice in the world, but dammit, if mainstream country knew what's good for it, they'd be all over that tune. Lately, I've been nursing fantasies about Loretta Lynn covering the song. Universe, please make it happen!
It was fun to hear "Down Across the Dixie Line" in its original dirge-like progression, not the hopped-up interpretation by the Punch Brothers the day before. I have a policy of not reading about an artist's gigs before I get a chance to see them, so "Six White Horses" took me by surprise on more than one count. I loved seeing Gillian and Dave gathered so closely around one mic, just because it's a lovely reminder of their unique collaboration, but they offered a couple of other talking points. Of course, one of them is Gillian's expert clogging, executed on a piece of graffitied plywood supplied by that ever gracious Fillmore staff. Tonight, we also saw David flub a cue on harmonica, which set everyone off in giggles. He's easily one of the most amazing guitarists you'll ever see, but at least we have proof he's human too.
At this point in their career and considering the devotion of their fans, Gillian and David can't possibly assemble a set that would satisfy every person in the room. They'll inevitably pass over someone's beloved song, but on this evening, that someone wasn't me. I heard some of my favorites, including "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll" and "Wayside/Back in Time" -- granted, the second one is a no-brainer in San Francisco. Best of all, they went with my absolute favorite track from their catalog: "Revelator." I want to say a lot more about this song regarding Gillian's voice, the lyrics, and the tune's general timber, but everything you need to know is right there in the recording. By the way, if you want to hear my harebrained treatise on this song and its relation to Mad Men, drop me a note. (Warning: Close, obsessive readings of the TV series are required.)
During the show, Gillian commented that they had arrived in San Francisco on Friday night (which explains why they didn't show up at Largo that same evening, as so many of us had hoped) and how the air was electric this time out, I suppose in a way they hadn't felt in their previous appearances at the festival. She didn't expand on this, but I got the impression she was referring to the friends and talents in town.
Fortunately for us, a few of these pals stuck around for the Fillmore set. Nate Walcott from Bright Eyes popped in and out for several songs, clocking an especially languid and luxurious contribution to "That's the Way the Whole Thing Ends." Buddy Miller worked up "That's How I Got to Memphis" with the duo, and Mike McKinley brought his trusty mandolin for a couple of tracks whose titles have slipped my mind.
We saw him in the balcony long before the show started, so it was no surprise when Robyn Hitchcock took his spot to Gillian's left. I racked my brain trying to recall if I've seen Robyn play with Gillian and David before, aside from Saturday's appearance, of course. I've listened to so many bootlegs and heard so many friends' accounts of their shows together and watched them play in so many personnel permutations that I couldn't remember if I'd actually been there for any of those occasions. According to this blog, I haven't, so I was glad to finally witness it for myself.
They reprised "Candyman," then followed up with "Look at Miss Ohio," with Robyn taking the second and third verses -- you know, the one with the line about the wedding dress. By the end, we all chimed in too. Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that David took lead vocals for one song, "Sweet Tooth," in addition to all his incredible guitar leads.
In total, the concert stretched to almost three hours, including the intermission. I never could've predicted that Gillian and David would give Broken Social Scene a run for the money in terms of sheer show duration, but I knew they'd add to an incredible weekend, and they all came through with flying colors. This is easily the best Hardly Strictly weekend I've ever enjoyed, and my brain is now filled with an ongoing medley of Elbow, Broken Social Scene, and Gillian Welch tracks. I hope I'm not being too greedy if I said I'd love for the bar to be raised even further next year.
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