November 13, 2003

Who's That Playing?

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A historian writing about the American West once said, “I take space to be the most important thing.” So it is, but most important for American folk music has always been the dark places, the undersides of things, the hidden. Gillian Welch has spent her career, which spans four albums and a stint as co-producer on the acclaimed O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, dragging the past out into the light, and the present back into the the bleak, indestructible mythic landscape that surfaces every now and then on something like Springsteen’s Nebraska or Cash’s American Recordings. The result, last Friday in Ithaca’s sold-out State Theatre, was an experience that can only be described as secularly religious.

Welch is a true evangelist, spreading the good news of American roots music from California to Nashville, but she is no fundamentalist. Humbly accepting the torch of inheritance from her heroes, she is a surrogate brother of the Stanleys, an adopted member of the Carter Family (which is fortunate since she’s a self-proclaimed “Orphan Girl”). However, Gillian takes these threads of the American music tradition and updates them, making it timeless, as it’s meant to be. With an approach and attitude far too rare, Welch twists modern themes into their elemental forms, and incredibly avoids either limiting her expression or mangling the meaning of her subjects. She draws out the essential similarities in emotion and experience — connecting a fallen rock icon to the Tennessee Chataqua tents — and in doing so extends the bounds of the 12-bar blues, the dirge, and the murder ballad. The sparsity and simplicity of these forms surprisingly ends up enhancing the complexity of the content.

The show opened, just as her new album does, with “Look at Miss Ohio,” a perfect example of Welch’s uniquely captivating songwriting and infinitely memorable melodies. She and David Rawlings, her long time sideman and songwriting partner, walked onto the stage and were greeted by a roar of approval from the crowd of 1,600. The crowd was by far one of the most responsive and respectful to grace a concert hall in recent memory. The duo were the epitome of simplicity. They stood on a rug at center stage, in front of a podium with a bouquet of flowers that resembled some antiquated Depression era photograph. Two microphones amplified the two guitars, and two more captured their voices. Nothing else. The focus was on the music, as it should be. The scene was established for a musical catharsis.

On “Elvis Presley Blues,” Welch articulated the truth of all great performance, elucidating the religious ecstacy shared by those on the stage and those on the floor. “He shook it like a holy roller/ Trying to save his soul.” Welch was the inspired fan, the messenger, the preacher, and finally the performer herself, leaving the audience paralyzed, with her voice traveling down their spines, utterly transformed. Her performance was a sort of meta-narrative, describing itself without meaning to. Similarly, many of Welch’s songs are almost accidentally autobiographical, yet retain their universality. This was evident in songs like “I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll,” “My First Lover,” and her solo “One Little Song,” with their apparent but never intrusive self-introspection.

Every song was its own expertly crafted, incisively observed four minute narrative of love and ghosts, but the two and a half hour long concert was stopped dead in its tracks multiple times, perfection transcending itself. “Rock of Ages” made the Carter Family influence obvious, with Rawlings’s fluid and crisp slide-work contributing a haunting element to the song. Throughout the show, he balanced between reserved accompaniment and incendiary runs, prompting the crowd to erupt in applause at least once per number. Particularly during the second set, the energy was magnified, with Welch’s head down and her body swaying. Rawlings would break out in seizures, passionately picking and pounding out notes on his signature Epiphone archtop until he ran out of frets. He appeared possessed, furthering the air of some secularly evangelical experience felt throughout the night. It was as if he had gone down to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil for his inhuman skills, and the crowd was fortunate for the transaction. He shook it like Elvis Presley, like his fingers felt the gospel, like his life depended on it. For her part, Gillian sang about God, Satan, redemption, and other religious themes that have been central to American roots music from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis to Nashville. But just like Robert Johnson before them, Welch and Rawlings told their stories in a way that can resonate with anyone, not just religious devotees. It was gospel used as allegory of earthly themes.

The highlight of the night was undoubtedly “Time (The Revelator),” the title-track of her lauded 2001 album, which synthesized spirituality, the religion of American Gospel and Blues, and Welch’s own personal demons. The song was at once an answer to Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator” and to her own critics, who refuse to believe that anyone from L.A. could know what it means to be from the “heartland.” Welch responded in this gorgeous number by seamlessly incorporating California into the fabric of personal and national folktales that so permeated the song and the night. It lasted well over six minutes, dynamically alternating between understated delicacy and a sound larger than any two people.

At the very end there was that holy moment, just as the final chord of a song starts to fade, and silence rules the hall as the crowd pauses to let go of the breath its been holding before exploding with applause.

Archived article by Erica Stein