The audience of last night's Gillian Welch show at the Brown Theater was transported back in time. Perhaps to Appalachia on some front porch or crowded church hall, perhaps to the glory days of the Grand Ole Opry with the likes of Johnny Cash and June Carter, but transported nonetheless. As the lights dimmed shortly after 7:30 and Gillian Welch and her long-time partner David Rawlings took the stage, time became irrelevant. It didn't matter that it was 2011 or a Tuesday night--the duet's gift for Americana transcended time and place.
Rawlings, in an old grey suit and white cowboy hat, and Welch, in a simple, jean sun-dress and cowboy boots, opened with "Copper Kettle" followed by "Scarlet Town". They stood side-by-side in front of a black-draped table that housed their many musical contraptions, including a box of harmonicas they interchanged throughout the performance, like carnival magicians. And yes, they worked their magic to a very enthusiastic and packed house. It was evident the Tuesday-night concert goers were serious appreciaters of music. From where I sat, I didn't see a single soul stumble down the row for a refill--a first in my experience at the Brown. But you would have to be crazy to miss out on what Welch and Rawlings served in two highly engaging sets.
From the inception of the performance, the audience showed their love and Welch seemed to pick up on that. Each time she reached for the banjo, the crowd would applaud and she and Rawlings joked, "You've proven yourself to be in constant banjo readiness." There were several personal exchanges that made the performance feel intimate and private, like we were seeing something singular and remarkable. Several times I found myself, furrowed brow, emoting with the lyrics, feeling the dark tonalities behind their perfect harmonies that flowed into and supported each other with perfect synchronicity. Not to mention marveling at Rawlings agility on his signature guitar, a 1935 Epiphone Olympic arch-top guitar sans the center hole. Rawlings played soft accompaniment to such songs as "Dixie" to a completely silent and awe-struck crowd and then jammed like no other during guitar solos, especially notable in "Time the Revelator". He played with such fervor he even lost his footing at the end and said with a smirk, "I need to work on sticking the landing."
When 9:30 rolled around and the duet made their way off stage after playing many songs from Welch's last album with a splattering of earlier tunes, the crowd, predictably, cheered them back for an encore. Welch started the first encore with "Sweet Tooth" an upbeat, classic American ballad from Rawlings' last album, the only song of the night, unfortunately, with Rawlings in the lead, followed by the classic "Miss Ohio". But, yes, there was a second encore that showed a little less predictability with a very folky cover of Jefferson Airplane's "Go Ask Alice" followed by a rival-style, foot-stomping, crowd-singing rendition of "I'll Fly Away". Even with the overwhelming sadness present in many of the songs from their latest album, The Harrow and the Harvest, we left feeling inspired and uplifted, cathartic and enchanted.
All-in-all, Gillian Welch played a nearly perfect show this Tuesday; it was everything a first-rate musical experience is: emotionally packed, transcendent, and precise. It made me feel good about living in this country, about the roots and history of America, about the fecundity and hope of American music. If Welch doesn't receive a nomination, or better yet, win a Grammy for her latest record, I will be disheartened. The power of two---two voices, two instruments, two partners was able to fill a theater not only with people, but with a round, complete sound capable of stopping time.