A bare stage (later on, it will feature in the performance as a musical instrument). Two microphone stands and a small, covered table await the performers – nothing else, no monitors, nothing. Onto the stage stride David Rawlings, carrying guitar and banjo, and Gillian Welch with guitar. This is the Apollo, Manchester, and for the next two hours these two consummate performers will delight their audience with their lyrical and instrumental virtuosity.
I’ve driven over, through the mist and drizzle of a November dusk, to see and hear these two musicians who go under one name, Gillian Welch – an inheritance from their days on the club circuit in Nashville in the early 1990s, where solo female artists were preferred at the time. They still retain some of the plain simplicity of those days, driving themselves from gig to gig. And plain simplicity is one way of describing their stage presentation – though not, in all honesty, their music, with its intricate harmonies and guitar interplay. As the New Yorker put it in a detailed and observant profile of the duo in 2004, ‘their music is deceptively complex, despite its simple components of two voices, two guitars’.
Rawlings is tall and lean, in grey suit and white Stetson; as he plays he hunches his shoulders and bends his knees, as if directing all his bodily force into the notes that cascade from his guitar. He plays with his eyes closed, swaying on the tips of his toes. Welch is tall and willowy in a knee-length dress and cowboy boots. She bends her head over her guitar and plays with a self-contained intensity. The pair are difficult to differentiate: it’s hard to know where one voice ends and the other begins, and hard, too, to define which, if either, is the better instrumentalist.
The show features nearly all of the songs from their acclaimed new album, The Harrow and the Harvest, and they kick off with ‘Scarlet Town’, the album’s opening track. It’s a song that’s typical of the duo’s compositions, being, in the words of Rob Hughes in The Telegraph, ‘songs that speak of loneliness and desperation. Of people buffeted by the winds of fate and fortune, framed by the austere hinterlands of rural America.’ ‘Sad songs’, as David Rawlings noted in one of his wry introductions. But they are also complex and, taken overall, the effect – as in this show – can be decidedly uplifting.
As the New Yorker noted in their profile, the duo’s pedigree is more than country:
The music they play contains pronounced elements of old-time music, string-band music, bluegrass, and early country music, but they diverge from historical models by playing songs that are meticulously arranged and that include influences from R & B, rockabilly, rock and roll, gospel, folk, jazz, punk, and grunge. Welch’s narratives tend to be accounts of resignation, misfortune, or torment. Her characters include itinerant laborers, solitary wanderers, misfits, poor people, outlaws, criminals, love-wrecked women, etc. Her imagination is sympathetic to outcasts who appeal to God and a number of her songs are written from the male point of view.
As if to underline this point, their next number was a rousing rendition of ‘I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll’ from Time (The Revelator), an album now revered as a classic. A little later in the set they sang the title song to a huge audience response – though, to be honest, every song got a rapturous reception and it’s therefore near-impossible to pick out highlights from the evening.
But mention must be made of the shiver-inducing performance of ‘Annabelle’ off the first album, Revival, with lyrics – ‘And we cannot have all things to please us, no matter how we try’ – that speak so powerfully of the lives of the millions whose fortune is to have little and lose much. It’s a perfect example of the miraculous way in which Gillian Welch writes lyrics that have a contemporary resonance, but which so totally inhabit the tropes of country music of the 1930s that at first you can’t believe it’s an original:
I lease twenty acres and one Jenny mule
From the Alabama trust
Half of the cotton, a third of the corn
Ya get a handful of dust
And we cannot have all things to please us
No matter how we try
Until we’ve all gone to Jesus
We can only wonder why
I had a daughter called her Annabelle
She’s the apple of my eye
Tried to give her something like I never had
I didn’t want to ever hear her cry
When I’m dead and buried I’ll take a hard life of tears
For every day I’ve ever known
Anna’s in the churchyard, she’s got no life at all
She’s only got these words on a stone
Until we’ve all gone to Jesus
We only wonder why
A ‘sad song’ for sure, and we’d had a few of those after an hour, so when Rawlings announced another as being ‘a song of hope and optimism’, there was laughter in the auditorium. ‘They think you’re joking’, was the response from Gillian Welch. But ‘Acony Bell’ is indeed a song of hope, written about the eponymous rare flower of the southern Appalachians found only in a few places in the mountains of the Carolinas.
The fairest bloom the mountain know
Is not an iris or a wild rose
But the little flower of which I’ll tell
Known as the brave acony bell
Just a simple flower so small and plain
With a pearly hue and a little known name
But the yellow birds sing when they see it bloom
For they know that spring is coming soon
Well it makes its home mid the rocks and the rills
Where the snow lies deep on the windy hills
And it tells the world “why should I wait
This ice and snow is gonna melt away”
And so I’ll sing that yellow bird’s song
For the troubled times will soon be gone
In stark contrast, just before the interval, ‘Caleb Meyer’ was introduced as ‘a good killing song’. Which is a pretty fair assessment of this unflinching account of bootlegger Meyer’s death at the hands of Nellie Kane, defending herself against his violent sexual attack.
Returning to the stage for the second set, Gillian Welch paid tribute to the venue, a ‘great room of the kind we don’t often get to play in’. She noted that in America the tendency was to tear down buildings like these (‘they even tried to pull down the Opry’). The Apollo is a former cinema built in the 1930s with Art Deco styling that has somehow escaped that fate.
The second set featured several upbeat numbers, most notably ‘Six White Horses’, with Rawlings hammering the banjo and blowing a storm on harmonica while Welch did the hambone, slapping her thighs and stomping her boots on the bare boards of the stage.
David Rawlings took lead vocal on a spirited cover of Ryan Adams’ ‘To Be Young’.
For me, the highlight of the second set (that also included outstanding numbers like ‘Down Along the Dixie Line’ and ‘Hard Times’ from the latest album, was their achingly beautiful cover of the late Townes Van Zandt’s song, ‘Snowin’ on Raton’. Introducing the song, Welch paid tribute to Townes, recalling how he would turn up at every gig they did around Nashville in the 1990s, sitting in the front row and whooping loudly when they hit an especially perfect note.
When the wind don’t blow in Amarillo
And the moon along the Gunnison don’t rise
Shall I cast my dreams upon your love, babe
And lie beneath the laughter of your eyes
It’s snowin’ on Raton
Come morning I’ll be through them hills and gone
Mother thinks the road is long and lonely
Little brother thinks the road is straight and fine
Little darling thinks the road is soft and lovely
I’m thankful that old road is a friend of mine
Bid the years goodbye you cannot still them
You cannot turn the circles of the sun
You cannot count the miles until you feel them
And you cannot hold a lover that is gone
Tomorrow the mountains will be sleeping
Silently the blanket green and blue
I shall hear the silence they are keeping
I’ll bring all their promises to you
At the end, the duo came back to assuage the rapturous applause with three spirited encores that included ‘I’ll Fly Away’, the number that, when performed on the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou, helped raise their public profile, and a fiery reworking of ‘Jackson’, the Johnny and June Cash duet.
Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor
Rock Of Ages
The Way It Will Be
The Way It Goes
I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll
Dark Turn Of Mind
Red Clay Halo
Down Along The Dixie Line
Six White Horses
To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)
Snowin’ on Raton
Look At Miss Ohio
I’ll Fly Away
I drive home and in my head I hear the chorus to Gillian Welch’s sprawling, drifting, hypnotic song of the road, touring and god knows what else, ‘I Dream a Highway’:
I dream a highway back to you
Oh I dream a highway back to you love
A winding ribbon with a band of gold
A silver vision come and bless my sould
I dream a highway back to you.
Bonus: Hickory Wind performed at a Gram Parsons tribute
- Guardian review of the Apollo concert
- The Ghostly Ones: New Yorker profile 2004
- I Dream a Highway: Gillian Welch’s Song of America Explicated