CONCERT REVIEW: Gillian Welch At Union Transfer


PETE_MARSHALL_AVATAR.JPGBY PETE MARSHALL This past summer my big brother Tom told me that if there is one show that I absolutely should not miss, it’s Gillian Welch.  “Pay special attention to Gillians’ partner David Rawlings.” Tom says,  His harmonies are strange and beautiful.” Living on opposite coasts, Tom and I don’t talk a whole lot.  But when we do get the chance, we often talk music.  It’s one thing we usually agree on.  Growing up in central Ohio, just beyond the foothills of Appalachia, I think the love of traditional bluegrass, country and folk music just became part of our genetic make-up.  Not that we wanted it that way.  We fought it hard with rock and roll radio. But it was inescapable  and, despite my best efforts to the contrary, some of that stuff seeped in, pooling up in a reservoir of twang where sense meets sensibility.

So Thursday night I took my brothers advice, put on my coolest high-heeled boots, and caught Gillian Welch at Union Transfer.   She began by announcing her intent to play a whole bunch of new music for the sold-out crowd and lit directly into “Orphan Girl,” the first track from her 1996 debut album Revival.   Surprised at the capacity crowd, it took only a few songs into the set until I understood the draw.  The fact that these two people found each other must have had something to do with the laws of physics.  They’re made up of complimentary elements.  Sugar and spice, snakes and snails, bacon and maple syrup, coffee-gravy and biscuits.  There must have been some irresistible gravitational pull forcing them together in the 1990s.  They are not just like-minded — it’s more like hive-minded, with harmonies like the buzzing of the swarm.  Slow, sad, sleepy and a little dangerous.  “The Way It Will Be” from the new album The Harrow & The Harvest is sung in such unison, voices so similar, that you’re not sure exactly what is happening.  Is that one voice, or two?  Add to the plate the seasoned flat picking jangle of Dave Rawlings on his 1930s era Epiphone Olympic Archtop guitar and Gillian Welch’s masterfully written songs take you directly where she wants you to be – right to the middle of the story.

Strange and beautiful, indeed.  By 11:30, Welch and Rawlings had weaved their way through two hours of music and lyrics that conjure images of dust-bowl poverty, Depression era thievery and bad men doing bad things.  For most of the night, the duo had the crowd standing stock-still, jaws on the floor.  While at other times the whole house tapped its boot heels.  Welch played most everything from her new album, including the popular “The Way That It Goes”, a bleak and catchy tune, and many more from the growing back-catalog finally ending the evening with a great version of “Jackson” by June Carter and Johnny Cash.  At one point they even had the bar crowd slapping their knees ham-bone style and clogging (not something you see every day here in Philadelphia). Although towards the end of the night my back hurt (due to my cool boots) and I was wishing for a bale of hay on which to rest my ass, I would like to express my thanks to brother Tom — I’m very glad I went.

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