I am a newcomer to American singer/songwriter Gillian Welch, only getting into her music a couple of years ago. I’d certainly heard of her, and had many friends who were devoted fans, but up until that point my knowledge of her music was minimal. After embarking on a solid YouTube session, listening to song after song, album after album, I was hooked.
Gillian Welch’s smouldering alt-country/folk/bluegrass/Americana musical style has been beloved by many since the release of her critically acclaimed debut album Revival in 1996. Performing alongside guitarist and vocalist Dave Rawlings (her partner of over 20 years both on and off the stage), Welch’s lyrics, vocals and compositions are pared back and raw, reminiscent of a dead American dream in barren wheat-belts or yearning anecdotes from the depths of the Appalachian Mountains. There’s a darkness in her music that somehow reminds me of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (if Cave had grown up in rural America instead of suburban Melbourne). It’s like mixing the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads album, (also released in 1996), with Emmylou Harris. But not.
It just so happened that soon after I began listening to Gillian’s music I saw that she was to perform in Sydney for the first time in over ten years. I nabbed a couple of tickets as soon as they went on sale (two shows old out within 20 minutes!). That concert, on 8 February 2016, was the best concert I’ve been to in my life thus far.
The gorgeous, pre-Art Deco Enmore Theatre was jammed with an eclectic mix of people; young and old, hipsters sporting cowboy boots and a couple of real cowboys, the simply curious along with the die-hard fans, Aussie musicians like Dan Sultan, a few Triple J stalwarts, and music journalist Bernard Zuel. The place erupted when Welch and Rawlings walked onto the stage.
What followed was two hours of extraordinary music, a concert etched into my musical memory. No dancing, no fancy light show, no razzle-dazzle; just two consummate professionals with guitars and harmonicas leaving a 1,600-strong crowd eating out of the palm of their hands. The duo performed a beautifully curated balance of songs from across all 5 studio albums; from a slow ballad telling the sorry tale of Becky Johnson putting a needle in her arm and ending up in the hard, Kentucky ground, to foot-tapping, up-tempo tunes that made you want to jump from your seat. What struck me most was how in tune Welch and Rawlings are; musically they never missed a beat and their perfect vocal harmonies went right through me.
The pair were funny, warm and engaging with the audience in-between songs. They struck me as being humble people, totally devoid of that sense of inaccessibility or smugness that often radiates off performers. It was like they were performing with us rather than for us.
I made my sister come with me, a person who’d never heard a single Gillian Welch song before I dragged her to the venue. I was worried she’d hate it and want to leave. I think she was expecting a God-awful country music concert, but she was totally enthralled from start to finish. I might have even spied a tear in her eye during Elvis Presley Blues. I win!
No one in the audience wanted the concert to end, and Gillian and Dave graciously performed 4 encores before the crowd let them escape. Their covers of Jackson and the southern gospel anthem I’ll Fly Away brought the crowd to their feet. After feeling a gamut of emotions throughout the concert – from heartbreak to joy and everything in between, I walked out of the venue feeling utterly elated.
I liked that fact that after their Sydney shows, the two packed a van and drove north up the highway to play in the village hall of Bangalow in the Byron Bay Hinterland, stopping to camp and check out the country on the way.
It’s been almost a year since the concert, and as you can tell I’m still not over it. I highly recommend giving Gillian Welch a whirl. You might love her, you might hate her. As for me, well, I only hope she’ll mosey on back to Sydney sooner rather than later.
Hell Among the Yearlings (1998)
Time (The Revelator) (2001)
Soul Journey (2003)
The Harrow & the Harvest (2011)