I saw Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings perform the first date of their spring tour last Wednesday at Humphreys on Shelter Island, and it’s taken me a week to get the words down to talk about it. The singer/songwriter and her music/life partner are two of my very favorite performers of all time and it’s been surprisingly difficult to formulate a faithful capture of the evening’s goings-on without slipping into a gushing, sycophantic rant about just how awesome the pair is. I mean, they ARE totally AWESOME, and even though I’ve seen them no less than a dozen times and each show just gets better and better, I still want to try and relay the flavor of the night without it becoming an endless sermon of superlatives.
Starting at about 7:45 p.m., the pair began with “Orphan Girl,” the very first song on their/her very first record. It’s always special because of its autobiographical roots and it set the tone for a very special evening.
“Well, we’re sorry we made you wait this long for us to come around with the new record,” Welch first addressed the enthusiastic crowd. And with a quick salute to an overflying plane, the pair launched into “Scarlet Town,” the first song from that new record, The Harrow & the Harvest.
It had been eight years between records for Welch -- that is, not counting Dave Rawlings Machine’s 2009 debut, Friend of a Friend -- and the new one is her/their finest yet. She’s said the delay was due to a bit of writer’s block and wanting to make sure that all of the songs were good, and it was certainly worth the wait.
With Rawlings in his now-traditional gray suit and white cowboy hat, and Welch in a sleeveless, floral-accented black dress and cowboy boots, the pair ran through eight of the ten songs on the new record. The inseparable duo does a lot of tuning in between songs, but as Welch explained, “The coastal fog has rolled in and made the instruments a little cranky,” so there was more than usual that night.
But after a lifetime of partnership, musical and otherwise, those tuning gaps have become prime moments for natural, hilarious banter between the two, or between one of them and the crowd. And when Welch needed to give Rawlings her banjo for an adjustment, she threw his guitar over her head and talked about it.
“I do this sometimes,” she said. “It’s very educational to hear what David’s guitar sounds like when it’s not Dave playing it. Cuz I know what you’re thinking - you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get me one of those guitars!’”
She then proceeded to bust out a minute-long interlude/ditty on it.
“I don’t really mean to say anything bad about the guitar - it’s a great-sounding guitar -- it just doesn’t sound like it sounds when he plays it, when anyone else plays it.”
The pair also has a tendency, like any longtime couple, to do things like finish each other’s sentences.
Rawlings: “This next song is kind of...”
Welch: “...it’s kind of a bummer, really. But you must have known what you were getting into.”
They also like to deviate from the setlist when it suits them. And the first time they did that on this night was a gem.
As they were tuning and preparing to play “Elvis Presley Blues,” Welch started talking about one of their close friends and mentors.
“This is a song about one of my favorite dead folk heroes,” she said. “Another one of my folk heroes died yesterday -- Doc Watson -- and we’re gonna play this one for him. We had the pleasure to play with him many times and...actually, you wanna hear a quickie story? This should really lead into the song I learned from him, but we weren’t gonna play it. Maybe we’ll play it. Anyway, the first time we played with him, up in Oregon, I was SO nervous. We’d met him after sound check and when it came time for our opening set, I was looking around to see if he was watching, but I didn’t see him anywhere. We thought that was cool, Doc’s an old dude and he’s got a lot of things to do before he plays. He doesn’t need to watch us. So we play our set and I come off, and the moment I get into the wings, I basically run straight into him. He was listening to the entire show right behind the curtain. I wasn’t gonna do this, but here is a song I learned from Doc.”
And the pair switched into a stunning version of “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor.” (They threw “Elvis” into the encore, just so no one was disappointed.)
In the second set of music, during The Harrow & the Harvest’s “Six White Horses,” Welch not only played the song’s percussion on her body, but she pounded out a good share of it by stomping and dancing on the stage.
“Right before we started this tour,” Welch explained, “friends of ours made us new boots. They had no idea how much attention they’d get. I’m not exactly known as a dancer.”
As it is with these two, most of the set is spent with Welch’s head down, slowly shaking her hair in her face, playing off the incredible lead that Rawlings provides, holding his vintage guitar like a tommy gun, herky-jerking it, bouncing and aiming it, while wild “how did he fit that in there?” flourishes punctuate audience favorites.
It’s the perfect yin to the yang of Welch’s fantastically authentic voice and the gorgeous harmonies the pair achieves together.
And when one guy in the audience blurted loudly, “This is the best concert I’ve ever been to in my life!,” Rawlings just quipped in stride, “I really think we should stop. I mean, what can we do now?”
Thank goodness for everyone there they didn’t take their own advice.