Gillian Welch: Heaven & Hell at the Enmore Theatre

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.

Discography:

Revival (1996)

Hell Among the Yearlings (1998)

Time (The Revelator) (2001)

Soul Journey (2003)

The Harrow & the Harvest (2011)

www.gillianwelch.com  Enmore Theatre

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Art Gallery of NSW

“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” Frida Kahlo

I’ve always loved Frida Kahlo. I’m fascinated by her story and have spent hours poring over books and scouring websites for images and information on this remarkable character. Leading a life blighted by tragedy, Frida is probably the most famous Mexican artist of the 20th century, alongside her fellow artist and husband, the acclaimed Diego Rivera.

When I learned that The Art Gallery of NSW was holding an exhibition focused on Frida and Diego’s relationship, well, I made a pilgrimage to the gallery as soon as I could.

Featuring paintings, drawings, photographs, and letters from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection, the exhibition is illuminating and moving. The Gelman’s were avid collectors of Mexican art, and earlier this year I was lucky enough to see other paintings by Kahlo from their collection at the Met in New York.

There were fewer paintings on display than I’d anticipated, but what was there was incredible. The intense, introspective self-portraits by Frida were surrounded by hordes of people trying to get a closer look. Was Frida Kahlo the original selfie queen? Examples of Diego’s work included a stunning painting of Natasha Gelman which apparently threw Frida into a fit of jealousy when she saw it.  Over 50 black and white photos adorned the walls, accompanied by a timeline outlining major events in both Frida and Diego’s lives. The images and text told every tragic, joyful and sorry tale.

Born to a German father and Mexican mother in Coyoacán, a borough of Mexico City, Frida lived most of her life in le Casa Azul, the house her father built. She  contracted Polio as a small child, and was involved in a terrible bus accident at aged 18, where she sustained devastating damage to her back. The accident thwarted her plans to attend medical school and left her confined to bed for long periods of time. So, she decided to become an artist. I find it sad to think about Frida alone in her room, in pain and looking inwards.

Frida’s first encounter with Diego Rivera occurred when she was an art student and he her teacher. Diego was already a famous and respected artist, friendly with the likes of Picasso, and he gave Frida advice on pursuing a career in art. Although he was married with children and 20 years her senior, the relationship between teacher and student escalated quickly. After a messy divorce from his second wife, Diego and Frida married – much to the disappointment of her father.  Their tempestuous relationship waxed and waned throughout the years, with each engaging in numerous extra-marital affairs.

Aside from art, the two were passionate about politics and were staunch anti-fascists. They were friends with Leon Trotsky (so much so that Frida allegedly had an affair with him. As well as with Josephine Baker if you can believe it!).  In fact, after things went sour for old Leon, it was in Coyoacán that he met his grisly end at the hands of an angry KGB agent and an ice pick with his name on it.

Although respected by the Mexican public and art community, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that Frida’s popularity as an artist and cultural icon was sealed. Books on her life appeared, contemporary galleries wanted to exhibit her work, and an obsession with Mexican art and imagery boomed. Shops were filled with kitschy Day of the Dead merchandise, colourful prints, and copies of her self-portraits.

This carefully curated exhibition just made me even more obsessed with the artwork and story of this powerhouse couple. There was an intense energy in the room which befitted such giants of the art world. Upon exiting the exhibition, footage of Diego and Frida laughing in the garden of le Casa Azul was playing on large screens. It was a poignant touch to mark the end of a poignant exhibition.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is on at the Art Gallery of NSW until until 9 October 2016.

P.S Did you know that this shot of Frida was the inspiration for the cover of Patti Smith’s Horses album? FRIDA IS SO COOL THAT PATTI SMITH COPIED HER LOOK!

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