Friday 22 August 2003
Gillian Welch glances back over her shoulder, uncomfortably. She's just checking that she's not casting some grotesque shadow, as the sickly mood lighting perfectly complements her sad-eyed country melodies. Long-running partner David Rawlings also complains, saying that he feels like he's looking straight into a blue-hued corona.
Eventually, they get what best suits the songs: an eerie seepage of subtle colour, imposing a lurid kind of Nashville nostalgia on the proceedings. The crammed multitude were stilled, absorbing every nuance of Welch and Rawlings's all-acoustic performance as they aired songs from the current Soul Journey album. Originally recorded during an intense six-day band session, it's curious to find this material reconfigured into a stripped-down duo state.
It's the kind of music that we're accustomed to hearing from the experienced lips of grizzled Nashville veterans, but this fresh-faced young couple make light-hearted banter in-between each fatalistic number, their close vocal harmonies creating a sense of bittersweet resignation.
Welch and Rawlings have their own distinctive style, but lie closest to Lucinda Williams and Neil Young. They are still hopeful romantics, even when they're examining the grim side.
Welch keeps the rhythmic strum going while Rawlings fills in the decorative solos between each of her vocal lines. He scribbles at high speed, in a cranky fashion that's akin to the guitar work of Willie Nelson, favouring high-note ripples and sudden flayed climaxes. Both Welch and Rawlings are continually attaching capos to their guitar necks, storing them in a tiny on-stage filing cabinet. David seems intent on sounding just like a tinny mandolin, continually shortening the available length of his strings, or even changing tuning mid-song, specially for its solo section.
"Wrecking Ball" compensates for its non-electric state by featuring several heavily-strummed Rawlings solos, while "Look at Miss Ohio" is set to be the successor to "My First Lover" in the instant catchiness stakes; by contrast, "One Monkey" is a much slower grower.
As the encores passed by, goofball Rawlings played the Alison Krauss role on "I'll Fly Away", the old Bill Monroe favourite (as heard in O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Welch jokes that only a fool would play on after that number, then laughs about risking a song that they've hardly ever performed. It was a gamble worth taking, as the Jimi Hendrix chestnut "Manic Depression" was transformed into a startlingly convincing hillbilly anthem.
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