I can’t remember who introduced me to Gillian Welch, but she’s become one of my favourite folk artists, an incredibly talented singer-songwriter whose expressive, world-weary voice is perfect for reinventing the appacalian and bluegrass traditions that she draws on in her songs. So I was extremely pleased to get the chance to see her play live in Manchester last month with her long-term musical partner, David Rawlings, even if the tickets did require my spending the money I’d set aside to buy new work shoes.
It was more than worth the price. Having played together since the early 1990s, Welch and Rawlings convey the seemingly effortless musical sympathy of two people who know each other extremely well – and which is always a joy to watch live. The performance in the first forty minutes was perhaps a little polite, but they relaxed and loosened up a lot in the second half. Seeing them live, I was really struck by just what an incredible musician David Rawlings is.
They played a lot of songs from the new album, The Harrow and the Harvest, which I don’t own yet so I can’t name them, but which sounded great. From the sparse first album, Revival, they played ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Acony Bell’ (the “happy song”). From the bluegrassy Hell Among the Yearlings, they played the dark ballad of rape and revenge, ‘Caleb Meyer’ and the evocative ‘Rock of Ages’. From Time (The Revelator), they sang ‘I Want to Sing that Rock and Roll’ and an awesome extended version of ‘Revelator’. From Soul Journey, we had ‘Look at Miss Ohio’ (one of my favourite Welch songs) and ‘Make Me a Pallet on your Floor’. There were some good covers too, Ryan Adams’s ‘Too be young’, Johnny and June Cash’s ‘Jackson’ and ‘Snowin on Raton’ by Townes Van Zandt. Welch said that when they first started out in Nashville, Townes would come to their gigs and whoop whenever they hit a note that he liked.
They made a lot of jokes about the darkness of the songs, but I find something very life-affirming about them, as they recreate a song-writing tradition that responds (unfinchingly) to life in a relentlessly hard world.
From a feminist perspective (rather like my experience of seeing Kristin Hersh) there’s something very powerful about seeing a woman performer who’s so confident, so in control of her own talent and doing exactly what she wants with it – a woman who has never apologised for her music; it just is what it is, you can take or leave it.
Here they are performing Caleb Meyer