Gillian Welch and David Rawlings | Palace of Fine Arts | San Francisco, CA | 5.20.03

Early in her show at the The Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, Gillian Welch related to the crowd how glad her banjo was to be back in California. “This is great banjo weather,” she said. “We got to California and my banjo was just really happy.” A native of California, Gillian herself appeared rather pleased to be back in her home state. After all, on her upcoming album Soul Journey, she sings “I wish I was back in ‘Frisco, with a brand new pair of shoes.” Judging from the shine on her black cowboy boots, Gillian seems to have gotten her wish.

photo by Charlie Russo
Playing to a sold-out audience, Gillian Welch and (her suspiciously unbilled) co-collaborator David Rawlings confidently announced that they had a lot of new songs to present. In response to the polite applause that followed, Rawlings quipped, “They’re optimists - clapping for songs that they’ve never heard.” Of course it wasn’t so much optimism as it was a safe bet. Gillian Welch has created three increasingly successful albums which culminated in 2001’s Grammy-nominated Time (The Revelator). The duo’s next album (due out June 3rd) is yet another solid effort of eloquent songwriting, soulful guitars, and iconic American imagery. New songs such as “Wrecking Ball,” “One Monkey,” and “No One Knows My Name,” all fit well into this evening’s excellent set of acoustic music.

Ironically though, it was Gillian’s phenomenal lead track off of Soul Journey - the upbeat sunny day masterpiece “Look at Miss Ohio” - which fell far short of its potential. This was probably due in part to a still docile and overly sober crowd (who, in their defense, lacked both an opening act AND a full cocktail bar) as well as the absence of the much needed drum line and amplified slide guitar arrangement that invokes so much atmosphere in the piece. Yet regardless of the results on this particular evening, “Miss Ohio” promises to be a fan favorite in the months ahead. With its lazy day vibrance and cheeky chorus (“She said she wants to do right, but not right now”) Gillian might have created her most transcendent effort to date, managing to simultaneously elude and embrace bluegrass, folk, country... and yes, rock music.

photo by Charlie Russo
Throughout stirring versions of such better known songs as “My Morphine,” “Elvis Presley Blues” and “Dear Someone,” the crowd at the Palace of Fine Arts was still notably subdued during the evening’s first set. In fact, it wasn’t until the subject of versatile music legend Roger Miller came up during the duo’s in-between song banter that they managed to seize an off-the-cuff opportunity to rouse the crowd. Welch and Rawlings whimsically launched into a pair of Miller covers, including his Christmas song “Old Toy Trains” as well the playful diddley “Reincarnation” (which Rawlings prefaced by saying, “I really don’t know this one”). The spontaneity gave the crowd a much needed burst of energy. In following, the upbeat bluegrass stomp of “I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll” subsequently ended the first set on a lively note. After a short intermission, Gillian returned by herself to sing the emotional “I Had a Real Good Mother and Father,” before Rawlings rejoined her for the hard luck ballad “One More Dollar.”

However, it was the duo’s masterful rendition of “The Revelator” that brought the night’s performance to its first of two great peaks. With its haunting tone and poignant lyrics, “The Revelator” steadily built up to an impassioned climax with the sort of subtle fury that was reminiscent of the more dramatic moments of Nirvana’s Unplugged album. As the two finished singing the final verse, Rawlings launched into a deft high note solo that garnered applause long before the song ever ended.

As this nearly eight minute version of “The Revelator” finally wound down, the once passive crowd now sounded off in rapturous applause that lasted well through to the start of the next number. Welch and Rawlings soon closed out their second set with the latter, singing an noteworthy cover of Neil Young’s “For the Turnstiles,” followed by Gillian belting out the fiery tale of “Caleb Meyer” from 1998’s Hell Amongst the Yearlings.

photo by Charlie Russo
The duo returned for an encore with eclectic veteran musician Peter Rowan playing mandolin on an impressive trio of songs, including a cover of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s “Brokedown Palace” as well as the Gillian Welch/Allison Kraus sing-a-long “I’ll Fly Away.”

At the end of this first encore, the audience put forth a grand ovation to demand yet another number. Returning without any apparent plan of how to finish the show, Welch, Rowan and Rawlings huddled for a moment at center stage to agree on a number. Welch then put forth a brief introduction by saying, “This is the first song that David and I ever played together.” Then stepping away from the microphones to the very edge of the stage at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater, the three began a moody, soulful and wholly unamplified cover of Johnny Cash’s “Long Black Veil.” The atmosphere in the theater grew captivated and still, as if the entire audience was holding its breath until the conclusion. Singing in sublime harmony amongst sparse and gentle guitar chords, the three musicians ended the evening on a spellbinding note. Though the applause was great, a collective sense of satisfaction had pervaded the theater - this second encore was simply as much as anyone could ask for.

photo by Charlie Russo
The evening of some two dozen wonderfully crafted acoustic songs was a fascinating showcase in folk and bluegrass music. Welch and Rawlings have captured a sound that is roots traditional, yet also wonderfully capable of incorporating modern and accessible elements of country, rock and blues. In considering that Welch had titled her first album Revival, she is certainly succeeding in manifesting this intention.

Charlie Russo
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 6/2/03]

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