Gillian Welch and David Rawlings review – a dark, masterful journey through American history

Enmore Theatre, Sydney
The Nashville-based duo’s sparse, harrowing country music may have a high bodycount, but their real talent is bringing their characters to life

“Well this is a chipper song,” announces Gillian Welch, a couple of numbers into her set. “It starts off slow and then fizzles out,” quips her partner Dave Rawlings.

Everyone laughs as they mock their dark, pared-back style, but the packed crowd at the Enmore can’t get enough of their stunning performance of what you might call Depression-chic.

The aforementioned “chipper song” turns out to be a beautiful version of The Way It Will Be, a tale of star-crossed lovers from what feels like a distant time. But it could have been any number of their slow-burning, complex compositions – Dark Turn of Mind, perhaps, or Tennessee – which, if you accept the no-frills offer, keep you coming back for more and more.

The songs can be harrowing, and the pair continue to play out the joke. Before Elvis Presley Blues, they note that it’s a song about some of “our favourite dead people” – the King, of course, but his tale of later life “all alone in a long decline” is compared to folk hero John Henry, who “fell down and died” trying to compete with a steam drill.

Although the evening has a high body count, as Rawlings jokes, their real gift is an ability to bring this long cast of characters to life. Whether it’s historic figures like Elvis or their own creations such as the hard-scrabble fruit picker of One More Dollar, the evening has a coherence matched by few others, as they take us Down Along the Dixie Line on a beguiling journey through country music and American history.

It’s odd then that Rawlings’ blistering guitar work often brings the biggest cheers. For all the subtleties of the craft, it’s his playing – and terrific it is, especially on their signature song, Time (The Revelator) – that lifts the crowd. Welch, though, shows she’s no slouch by clapping and slapping out the rhythm of Six White Horses on her thighs and then performing a quick “clog” dance.

An encore of I’ll Fly Away from O Brother, Where Art Thou? has the audience clapping and singing along, with stage lighting so arch that the Coen brothers themselves could have been given the credit. But for the final song they switch off the mics and walk to the very edge of the stage to perform a magical Long Black Veil, a Southern gothic classic and a suitably dark end to a masterful show.

  • Gillian Welch plays at the Enmore in Sydney on 9 February and at the Tivoli, Brisbane on Thursday 11 February.


Martin Farrer

The GuardianTramp

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