Review by Kirsten Ferguson
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
“I heard someone trying to describe what we do. They said we’re acoustic downer rock,” joked singer-songwriter Gillian Welch during her recent performance at the Egg, where she was accompanied by her longtime musical partner, guitarist David Rawlings.
Rawlings had just introduced “The Way It Will Be” by calling the song “kind of a bummer.” The stunning tune (sometimes known by fans as “Throw Me a Rope”) has been in the duo’s set for years, but didn’t make it onto an album until last year’s “The Harrow & the Harvest,” their first album since 2003’s “Soul Journey.”
It was a mournful and dark song, yes. But not quite a bummer. Over two sets spanning their five critically acclaimed albums, Welch and Rawlings demonstrated how musical chemistry and keen song-craft can unite in some magical combination to keep even the bleakest material from seeming shoot-me-now depressing.
Their set-up was sparse. Both stood in a small rectangle of light, armed with an acoustic guitar and outfitted in cowboy boots, while the rest of the stage remained empty and bare. And many of the songs had pitch-black themes: a moonshiner’s death wish on “Tear My Stillhouse Down,” Biblical redemption on “Rock of Ages,” rural fatalism on “The Way It Goes,” romantic doubt on “Dark Turn of Mind.”
The songs were simple and austere, but also acutely observed and quite beautiful. And many of the show’s lighter moments came as the evening progressed. “Elvis Presley Blues” was a ballad to a hip-shaking folk hero; “Red Clay Halo” had a faster, bluegrass tilt; and the retro-leaning “Wayside/Back in Time,” one of Welch’s best-known songs, had a comparatively pop uplift.
After Rawlings drew loud cheers from the nearly full room for a masterful guitar interlude on “Revelator,” Welch slapped out the beat to “Six White Horses” on her bare thighs and by clogging her boots against the stage. The pair then paid tribute to the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth with a segue into “This Land Is Your Land” in the midst of “I Hear Them All,” the one song sung solely by Rawlings.
“Now I’m in such a good mood, I’m gonna play you a killing song,” Welch said before the pair finished their set with the murder ballad, “Caleb Meyer.” They returned for an encore that included “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” a traditional song they learned from guitarist Doc Watson, who died earlier this year. And “I’ll Fly Away” – from Welch’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou” collaboration with bluegrass performer Alison Krauss – had the crowd clapping along.
GILLIAN WELCH SET LIST
Tear My Stillhouse Down
Rock of Ages
The Way It Will Be
The Way It Goes
Elvis Presley Blues
Dark Turn of Mind
Wayside/Back in Time
Red Clay Halo
Down Along the Dixie Line
I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll
Six White Horses
Look at Miss Ohio
I Hear Them All/This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie)
Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor (traditional)
I’ll Fly Away