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Concert Review: Gillian Welch, Moore Theatre, Seattle, WA, 7/13/11

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It’s going to be really hard for any concert I see the rest of this year to top Gillian Welch’s jaw-droppingly good two-set show at Seattle’s Moore Theatre July 13, 2011. Anyone only familiar with studio-recorded Welch might have a hard time understanding this. Sure, her records are gorgeous, elegiac modern country/bluegrass masterpieces, but often the songs are deliberately paced with hushed vocals — not exactly a common one-two punch for a rousing live show.

Welch, along with longtime musical partner Dave Rawlings, poked fun at her own slow style Wednesday.  While the songs often took their time, meandering around Rawlings’ expert guitar work and Welch’s deceptively powerful voice, they were anything but boring. Armed with only a pair of acoustic guitars, a banjo, some harmonicas and some of the loveliest harmonies you can imagine, Welch and Rawlings found the sweet spot of 22 songs, much to the delight of a roaring packed house at the Moore.

Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Photo by Dusty SomersWelch’s long-awaited new record, The Harrow & The Harvest, was released in late June 2011, and with all the new songs, she and Rawlings were still “figuring out which songs like to be next to each other,” Welch said. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they’ve got it pretty well figured. The upbeat and the somber mingled without a hint of incongruity — both elements essential to Welch’s musical sensibility.

The one structural hiccup prompted Welch to mutter, “What are we doing here?” which was met with an enthusiastic response: “Awesomeness.”

“That’s what it says on the setlist,” Rawlings replied, a sly grin underneath his cowboy hat. The pair had the audience enthralled throughout, and they more than earned the adoration.

It’s clear Welch and Rawlings have been making music together for a long time — intuitively playing off one another to create some truly memorable moments, like Rawlings’ extended guitar coda on “Revelator” and Welch’s downright adorable knee slapping and dancing accompaniment to “Six White Horses.” When they launched into a rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” during the first of two encores, the entire venue echoed with audience voices in an impromptu sing-along.

And then there’s Welch’s voice, which has to be heard in person to be fully appreciated. Her laconic drawl can crescendo and become a piercing, perfectly pitched powerhouse at a moment’s notice. Combine that with the virtuoso picking abilities of Rawlings, and you have a dream team.

And after Wednesday’s final song — a reverb-laden cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” in which Welch wailed like Grace Slick and Rawlings brought the psychedelia on just an acoustic guitar — I’m convinced these two could play pretty much anything.

I’ve appreciated Welch’s talent for a long time, but her live show makes it all the more apparent and has put her at the top of my must-see-again-ASAP list.

Complete Setlist:

Set 1:
“Hard Times”
“Silver Dagger”
“Elvis Presley Blues”
“The Way It Will Be”
“Annabelle”
“I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll”
“One Morning”
“Back in Time”
“Dark Turn of the Mind”
“The Way It Goes”

Set 2:
“Down Along the Dixie Line”
“No One Knows My Name”
“By the Mark”
“Revelator”
“Six White Horses”
“Ruby” (Dave Rawlings Machine)
“Look at Miss Ohio”
“Red Clay Halo”

Encore:
“Tennessee”
“I’ll Fly Away”

Second Encore:
“The Way the Whole Thing Ends”
“White Rabbit” (Jefferson Airplane)

About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.