Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Farthing Auditorium, Boone, NC- 10/21
I am a fairly new southerner. I moved to western North Carolina from Pennsylvania over a year ago to be with my compatriots in The Recipe and being in a band that tours so much, I don't get to see live music as much as I want to. However when Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings put on a show at Farthing Auditorium in Boone, NC on a Tuesday night off about an hour from my home in Marion and there I was, row P. I mentioned I was a 'new southerner' because of this place I moved to only a little more than a year ago- beautiful mountainous landscapes, relatively inexpensive living, a lot less aggression on the highway, great food and tons and tons of music. There is not just music but GREAT music on the radio and in venues with kind audiences who value and respect it. I love it here and am proud to become a part of this community. I had a similar experience seeing Bob Dylan in Asheville this past spring but somehow this evening was more special, and that's saying a lot. I've seen Dylan maybe 50 or 60 times since the mid-eighties and his music has made me feel and understand things within myself in a way that only the best artists, writers and performers can. There are others, too- Neil Young and the Dead (that's GRATEFUL dead, sonny) immediately come to mind and there are certainly more.
First off, the show at Farthing tonight was $12 to the public (I've paid $125 for good Stones seats before) and not quite sold out. The audience was a nice mix of Appalachian State University faculty, students, heads, infants (I was worried for a second), young urban professionals and traveling musicians and their crew on their night off. The two came out on time and kicked off the show with 'Miss Ohio', the lead track and one of my favorites from her new album Soul JourneyNEED to hear to help put our lives in context with what has passed. This poured through two beautiful acoustic instruments (David plays an old National f-style guitar and Gillian played an old Gibson acoustic guitar and some claw-hammered banjo) and two exquisite voices- some of the most beautiful singing and harmonizing ever anywhere, period. (Great sound in the joint, too).
They broke the night into two sets, and at the end of the first when I stepped outside my buddy Jeff said 'she is one of the coolest chicks ever- Dylan cool'. Now Jeff and I listen to and talk about a lot of music together, most notably the 'voices'- Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen- you get the picture. So what was it about this woman with the pristine voice that puts her right in the middle of THAT group? Conviction and talent are easy bets. Integrity…I'm not sure, but she certainly belongs there. Maybe it's just that she has so much to say and she knows how to say it without the thought of commerciality. But comparison isn't what's important here; it's what you get for your hard-earned twelve bucks. At the break I calculated that I had already ingested at least $24 dollars worth of entertainment (yeah, right- maybe in 1966) and was ready to quadruple my money.
The second set really was a second show…different mood and approach. Longer songs, more instrumental breaks, more chances taken and an even better crowd reaction than the first set, which is saying something. She seemed to mean something to everybody there. I know I personally connected to the lyrics of "Wrecking Ball' and Everything Is Free"- I've seen that little dead head girl watching and I've often wanted to tell some drunk in a bar "if you want to hear a song, go sing it yourself'. The LSD reference in the former is perfect country psychedelia- "I met a Love Sick Daughter of the San Joaquin – She showed me colors I've never seen – And drank the bottom out of my canteen – Then left me in…........the…....... fall – like a wrecking ball.' Dylanesque in the way it takes one idea and gives it deeper meaning by putting it at the end of every verse (instead of in a chorus), but totally of her (and my) generation…totally relevant.
But let me take a minute to describe what David Rawlings brings to the show (his name was not on my ticket but at least on the marquee poster out front). He played slide over the top of his high-strapped instrument, snapped his capo on around the 10th fret in the middle of a solo and tossed it back in his pocket mid-song and played beautiful soaring variations on the melody of the song during his solos. He takes chances, he's good, and he is one of the most original and exciting pickers I've ever seen- he brings something new to a very old table, and it sits in very nicely with what is already there- Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, amongst others. He has a great sense of humor and I got the feeling that these two are not just musical soul mates but a sort of musical yin and yang that work perfectly with each other and somehow add up to be more than the sum of their parts. Gillian's rhythm work can easily be over-looked, but shouldn't be- her playing is letter perfect and graceful, and her reactions to her partner antics are priceless. When she breaks down and offers up to the audience a 'secret' to one of her songs he stops her before she can- playful and deep at the same time.
Speaking of Bill Monroe, at the end of the set she mentioned that Bill ended every show she ever saw with "I'll Fly Away' (me too) and so she ended her set with this beautiful spiritual classic. Of course the audience would not let them leave and the 2 returned for a three-song encore. The second song was an unnamed new composition that one member of the audience deemed 'awesome' and I would say was heavily influenced by Neil Young's 'On The Beach' album in mood and chord structure and also the vocal arrangements of CSN, although the audience member said it simpler. They were brought back one more time for my favorite of their covers, Neil Young's 'Albuquerque'. I left feeling good about myself, with a tear in my eye.
On the way home I slipped in a disc that a friend of mine had burned for me recently of a public radio show called 'Chimpin' The Blues'. It was a one-off show done by my friend Jerry Zolten (music professor, musician, producer, road manager for the Fairfield Four, author of the new book on The Dixie Hummingbirds, record collector and all around music geek) and the geek, R. Crumb (cartoonist, musician and another fervent record collector). They were sitting there in the studio playing old records (Crumb hates everything after 1936 with the exception of some early '50s rock and roll before 'the industry got a hold of it'- and he drew the cover of "Big Brother And The Holding Company"!) and articulating why these records are important and excited them. It was great. It got me thinking about some of the stuff I have been reading about Gillian Welch lately in the music papers, especially that she was a record geek out in California where she grew up (she was born in Manhattan to a 17 year old who had an affair with a traveling musician- nowhere near the south). There is a certain geekiness about her- you can tell she gets excited about what she loves- but there is an elegance about her that is most likely cultivated from a firm understanding of what has come before her. Thank goodness that she and her muse are here to take it further on down that road.