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Louisville’s Brown Theatre hosted folk singer Gillian Welch and her guitar virtuoso Dave Rawlings on Tuesday, August, 30th.  The Theatre provided a scenic venue, although its grand mezzanine alters the acoustics for those unfortunate ones toward the back of the audience.  The stage was as minimalistic and unassuming as Welch and her music:  lights set down low and a simple carpet adorning the stage.

Welch and Rawlings played two sets of songs (see their handwritten lists below), and the selections spanned their oeuvre, from “Stillhouse” off of Revival to several pieces from their new release The Harrow & the Harvest.  They also incorporated “Ruby” and “Sweet Tooth” from Rawlings’ album, A Friend of a Friend.   

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Welch comes off as slightly uncomfortable on stage.  Her intermittent banter with the audience verges on perilously unfunny, but Rawlings sarcastic interjections ease this tension.  No one cares about the banter, though, when the music starts.

Welch and Rawlings have become my two favorite musicians.  They craft poetic lyrics and set them to tunes that range from toe-tapping to breath-taking.  My favorite moment from this concert was “Elvis Presley Blues.”  I did not capture the live performance, but here’s a good version.   

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Live in concert, Rawlings is the show stopper, and performances like last Tuesday night leave him with few peers on six strings.  A couple of years ago a friend asked me, “Who is the better guitar player, Keith Urban or Brad Paisley?”  Of course quantifying and comparing guitar skills are difficult tasks.  Still, I answered Brad Paisley: Keith Urban has 8 to 10 good tricks that he rotates throughout his solos, but Paisley has a much broader proficiency. 

You get the same feeling with Rawlings’ work.  He’s skilled with dynamics and effuses songs with a frenetic energy more characteristic of hard rock than newgrass folk.  He attempts dissonances that most of us would dismiss on grounds of sound music theory.                

Welch and Rawlings’s music is the epitome of curiously religious.  Occasionally, they perform songs familiar to Southern Gospel aficionados—Welch contributed to “I’ll Fly Away” for the Grammy-winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?—but these renditions are a tribute to the genre, rather than a confession of faith.

The theme of depravity recurs throughout their musical corpus.  Human proclivity toward sin is an assumption in Gillian Welch’s lyrically world—“the great destroyer lives in every man” (“Silver Dagger,” The Harrow and the Harvest). 

Characters in Welch’s songs react to the reality of fallen-ness in diverse ways.  The rebellious Yankee maiden of “Miss Ohio” (off the album Soul Journey) puts on a moral pretense, even as she pursues her misplaced passions—“I wanna do right but not right now.”  The love besotted lady of “Tennessee” (from The Harrow & the Harvest) apparently lacks the evil intentions but still falls victim to vice—“I had no design to be a child of sin, but you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek.”       

What become clear to me in the concert was that some hear a celebration of depravity in Welch’s music and are glad to join in the festivities.  I don’t think that characterization is fair. 

Welch and Rawlings let eight years pass between Gillian Welch’s last two records.  They’ve described the more recent of these efforts as ten different kinds of sad.  Here’s hoping that however long it takes for the next album to debut, it will sound like the joy of salvation and the hope of redemption.

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