Gillian Welch & David Rawlings - The Palais Hepburn Springs

There is an uncanny quality to the duo called Gillian Welch. It has a lot to do with something sublime and otherworldly in their combined act that mesmerises and enchants the most cynical audience.

Their performance at the rural venue of The Palais in the main strip of Hepburn Springs on Saturday 13 November was, I dare say, typical. Reviews written on their shows during the couple's Australian tour have been universally glowing and this review is no exception.

They kicked off the show at 10.00pm with "Orphan Girl", a song from Gillian Welch's first album "Revival".

Gillian Welch was dressed in a sleeveless grey green dress initially covered by a leather jacket. The jacket was discarded after the second song. David Rawlings sported a brown suit and a cowboy hat, his long hair, tucked behind his ears.

"Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor" was second on the song list followed by "Elvis Presley Blues".

Taking up her banjo, Gillian related several banjo anecdotes that segued into "Rock of Ages".

"Barroom Girls" was next, followed by "My Morphine" one of this reviewer's favourite Welch songs. Gillian made a comment about yodelling describing her style as "yodelling at under water speed". A very apt description and beautifully demonstrated in "My Morphine". The extraordinary juxtaposition of the song lyrics - a dreamy junky lament - and the yodelling chorus - is mind blowing.

Throughout the evening David Rawlings was not just a pretty face. He provided harmony vocals and exquisite guitar embellishments to Gillian's singing and guitar playing. I found myself mesmerised by his playing, those excruciating moments where he is carried away by the intricacies of fingering the notes, just barely making it work. Alec Wilkinson accurately described his playing in a recent New Yorker article:

"Rawlings is a strikingly inventive guitarist. His solos often feature daring melodic leaps. He uses passing tones as signal elements of a solo rather than relying on them merely to bridge chord changes, and there is an obstinate, near-vagrant quality of chromatic drifting to his playing-of his proceeding with harmonic ideas at a different pace and perhaps even in a different direction from the song's changes. He uses double and triple stops and open strings for dramatic effect. Often, he leaves an open string ringing as a drone against which he plays a note that conflicts with the chord the drone refers to. He likes to go as far out on a limb as he can before figuring out how to get back."

When asked by the same reviewer how he would describe his playing, Rawlings said that he simply has a fondness for certain notes and he finds ways to play them. When asked which notes they were, he says "The ghostly ones."

The duo's harmonies are unearthly - so pure it's like a vocal symbiosis. Gillian Welch has a pleasant alto whereas David Rawlings voice sounds at a higher register. Together, their intertwined voices almost meld into one voice - they are beautifully suited.

On stage they stand a little apart, but each of them moves in elegant patterns, Welch bowing low over her instrument and gracefully unbending to sing, Rawlings gently gyrating and swaying as his fingers busy themselves on the guitar.

Gillian describes her songs as "downers" but I find them hauntingly beautiful.

Livelier tunes such as "Look At Miss Ohio" and "I Want to Sing That Rock And Roll", a slow cover of Bob Dylan's "Billy" from

the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" soundtrack and "Red Clay Halo" rounded off the first session.

After the interval the duo performed ten more songs from across the repertoire Gillian Welch has built up in four CDs. David Rawlings sang solo on "I'm On My Way Back to the Old Home" with Gillian providing harmony vocals. "One Little Song" Gillian sang solo; simply accompanying herself on guitar while Rawlings took a break.

Other highlights were "No One Knows My Name" where we discovered that Gillian plays a mean harmonica - yet another accomplishment, "Wrecking Ball" where David Rawlings, in turn, played harmonica. The stark bluegrassy murder ballad "Caleb Meyer" signalled the end of the show.

Thunderous applause and a standing ovation drew the twosome back for an encore.

The first number was a new unnamed song which sounded wonderful. "Everything is Free" was next and "I'll Fly Away", popularised on the "O Brother" soundtrack, was a vain attempt to end the show a second time.

On being compelled by the enthusiastic applause to re-emerge, Gillian commented that "I'll Fly Away" was Bill Monroe's signature closing song that always resulted in the crowd going home.

Resigning themselves to extending the show they sang two covers - a beautiful version of Neil Young's "Albuquerque" and a fantastic rendition of J J Cale's "After Midnight" which made me think that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings' slow and dreamy covers of other people's songs sound like definitive versions.

They obviously thought, and most of the audience were inclined to agree, that this was the last encore. However, a persistent, very noisy, table rapping, glass smashing set of hoons on the a table near the front forced the artists back to sing a soothing gospel number - "Morning Stars Arising", a gracious hint that the night was over.

Some enchanted evening it most certainly was, and one of the most engrossing musical acts I have ever witnessed. Gillian Welch's brand of Americana music is at once modern and gothic. It harks back to the roots of American music in a way that celebrates it and yet builds upon it with refreshing new interpretations.

Every show in Victoria was sold out soon after going on sale. There is every possibility that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings will return to these shores in the future. Whatever you do, don't miss them!

Song Listing (CD Title)

Session 1
1. Orphan Girl (Revival)
2. Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor (Soul Journey)
3. Elvis Presley Blues (Time The Revelator)
4. Rock Of Ages (Hell Among The Yearlings)
5. Barroom Girls (Revival)
6. My Morphine (Hell Among The Yearlings)
7. Look At Miss Ohio (Soul Journey)
8. I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll (Time The Revelator)
9. Billy (Bob Dylan Cover - DVD)
10. Red Clay Halo (Time The Revelator)

Session 2
1. My First Lover (Time The Revelator)
2. No One Knows My Name (Soul Journey)
3. One Little Song (Soul Journey)
4. Revelator (Time The Revelator)
5. By The Mark (Revival)
6. I'm On My Way Back To The Old Home (DVD)
7. Wrecking Ball (Soul Journey)
8. Caleb Meyer (Hell Among The Yearlings)

Encore 1
1. New Song (Unnamed)
2. Everything Is Free (Time The Revelator)
3. I'll Fly Away (O Brother Soundtrack cover)

Encore 2
1. Albuquerque (Neil Young cover)
2. After Midnight (J J Cale cover)

Encore 3
1. Morning Stars Arising (traditional?)

Review by Anne Sydenham 2004
The photos were taken by David Trembath

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