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Welch brings relevancy to songs

Schuba's, Chicago, June 13, 1996

By Roy Kasten

CHICAGO - Gillian Welch is like Emily Dickinson with a guitar and a voice from a Victor 78.

Her sensibility is religious, her voice filled of hard-earned wisdom, her sight set on pleasures and pains of the spirit. On a hot week night in Chicago, she made her songs of poor dirt farmers, orphans, old V-8s, and Christian fervor immediate and relevant for an urban audience.

Her songs sounded with a placid literal surface, but through repetition and inflection, lines like "I know no mother /No father, no sister /No brother" and "the bright morning stars of the barroom girl" deepened and danced with meaning.

Welch was accompanied by David Rawlings, who co-writes some songs, and plays blinding and precise lead guitar. Welch clearly relied on Rawlings for extra color and texture, but she lead the duo, humming and tapping out the introductions, before her world-weary voice takes over.

Welch held her cherry Guild confidently, with spindly hands, her hair tight neatly back in dark bow. Like a Depression Era school teacher, her face is intense and humble, but the lines around and under her big almond eyes belie her age.

Welch and Rawlings hail from California, but their pale skin, elegantly stooped shoulders, and conservative dress, give their stage presence a timeless dignity. They know intimately the rural country music of Carter Family and Hazel Dickens, bluegrass, country blues, as well as the folk tradition of Guthrie and Seeger, and urban songwriters like Utah Phillips and Eric Andersen (who's "Dusty Box Car Walls" they performed as encore, and was vocal highlight). Their music draws all of these forms into a unbroken circle.

Throughout the show, Welch drew energy from Rawlings, her voice balancing gracefully beside his soft, low tenor. They harmonized far more often than on Welch's recent debut, "Revival."

On the searing "By the Mark," the two extended the call and response harmony, into a subtle, interweaving of voices. Rawlings guitar playing was sweet and plunky on his 1935 Epiphone archtop, and echoed and springy on his vintage National steel. He played every lead with backwoods virtuosity.

Though their songs were often as dark and lovely as a cemetery , their demeanor had a composed joy. They introduced a song of austere Christian devotion with humor: "I wrote "By the Mark" according to the gospel flow chart: "I'm sinner; then it's either, I accept or reject Jesus; then it's I'll be saved or damned. Gospel songs are nice 'cause you know where they're going."

And that humor buoyed them: even though it was their second show, Welch and Rawlings didn't seem to want to stop.

For their first encore, they played "their greatest hit for someone else," "Orphan Girl," which Emmylou Harris recently recorded. "This will some day be on a K-Tel collection," Rawlings said. On CD, the song has an electric edge, but live, its most traditional resonances arose from their patient picking and harmony, resulting in pure, vividly alive beauty.

And when they handled secular themes, they chose their material carefully: along with every song on Welch's recent Almo release "Revival," they played, a couple of new songs, Robert Earl Keen's "Goin Downtown," an original, "Wichita," given to Tim and Mollie O'Brien, and "Long Black Veil," the perfect final song.

The Buck-Fifty Boys from Minneapolis opened, playing for about an hour, and mixing acoustic, modern bluegrass instrumentals with a bit lazily paced originals. The fiddle player was the most talented, occasionally taking lead vocals, as on a fine rendition of Townes Van Zandt's "Loretta."

And while they seemed a bit tentative, their sound is clean and appealing, like Uncle Tupelo for adults. Originals like "Indianola," are charming, clever portraits.

Set list for Gillian Welch:
Tear My StillHouse Down
One More Dollar
Pass You By
Barroom Girls
Paper Wings
I Been Down Before
Goin' Downtown
By the Mark
One and Only
Blue Ridge Blues
Two Soldiers
Acony Bell
Red Clay

Orphan Girl
Box Car Walls

Encore 2:
Long Black Veil

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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