On December 13th Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings played for two and a half hours at The Wilbur Theatre, concluding their U.S. tour they started in June and spanned ninety different shows. They had one intermission and two encores.
Before the show their cast and crew of five – Welch and Rawlings included – went out to eat at a swanky, hip, hole-in-the-wall, seafood place known as Legal Sea Foods. For a local like Rawlings, who had family in the crowd and studied at Berklee, the unoriginality of this last supper on the road can be overlooked by his originality on stage with Gillian Welch.
To say the show was Gillian Welch’s is to say you didn’t go to the show.
Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch have been collaborating together for fifteen years. They’re debut album, Revival, received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The show was, is, and will be as long as they’re together, a duo. And it’s a duo that makes two and a half hours of music played with only two acoustic guitars, a banjo, two incredible voices, a couple hands, and couple feet sound like a whole band squeezed onto the stage at The Wilbur.
Simplicity was the name of the game, from appearance to performance. Welch was done up in whiskey leather cowgirl boots and a navy sundress with her red hair falling gracefully to her shoulders. She looked youthful and comfortable. Dave Rawlings came out in a bright white ten-gallon hat and charcoal suit with his signature tobacco sunburst 1935 Epiphone Olympic. The guitar that went for thirty-five dollars in 1935 and would probably run for thousands now.
There were no effects involved in their performance. The only piece of acoustic distort and technology was the rubber mat they played on so the carpeted stage at The Wilbur wouldn’t shock them when they got close to the microphone. They didn’t even use tuning pedals.
Intimacy was at an all time high.
Gillian Welch’s voice sounds like a lace curtain being tousled by a gentle southern breeze. Dave Rawlings has a voice as smooth as fine tobacco and a guitar that rattles like a shot of moonshine. When the two harmonize they produce a sound that doesn’t bounce and collide off the frescoed, Raphaelite, walls of the Wilbur; it glides and eases its way across the rafters and down to the seats.
The two played for a large, older, and loving crowd. Whenever Rawlings would climb his way up and down that seventy-six year old guitar neck with alarming dexterity and speed the audience would erupt in hoots and applause. They played fan favorites like “I’ll Fly Away” from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack along with “The Way It Will Be,” “Elvis Presley Blues,” and “In Tall Buildings.” When Dave Rawlings started off “I Hear Them All” solo, he transitioned smoothly to “This Land Is Your Land” creating a choral sing along for a couple patriotic verses before bringing it back home to “I Hear Them All.” They ended their second encore, and their U.S. tour, with “The Way The Whole Thing Ends.”
Comfort and connection.
Rawlings and Welch have built such a close relationship that the comfort and connection they have with each other is stronger than the Corinthian columns supporting the theatre. During the first encore they played “Six White Horses” where Gillian claimed that they took a risk on the arrangement: Rawlings on harmonica and guitar, Welch on handclaps and vocals. During breakdowns Welch would hop on a different part of the mats and start stomping away a beat with a southern grace and charm that expounded her youthfulness.
Overall, the duo harmonizes a combination of soft and tender with rough and refined. Textures and forces play off each other with incredible connection, each filling in the gaps between the others’ spaces. Being in the rarified air of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings while they perform is to be in the presence of an absurdly large musical library shared between the two of them. A plethora of influences that have come and gone over the course of the years, ranging from the 1935 Epiphone being pushed to its potential to the Bright Eyes cover of “Method Acting.”
It’s safe to say that at the Wilbur on Tuesday night, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings proved they are a canonical live performance for our generation.