Oh Me O My O!
It’s Friday night and we’re going to see Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. We couldn’t believe our luck when she released her first albumn in eight years in July and subsequentially announced a North American tour for the following month. They’re in North Carolina the week we’re here and playing Asheville’s Orange Peel tonight. Luckily we’ld bought our tickets in advance as this was the first night on the tour to sell out. The venue is a large renovated warehouse, basically four walls with a huge high roof from which hangs a gigantic central fan that creates a cool downdraft. Mary is decidedly nervous; an incident with a fan in Vietnam many moons ago has left her with a unique form of appliance related PTSD (and a neat little scar to show for her troubles). I reassure her not to worry, that if the fan falls it will take me out first as I’m taller. We individually get drinks at the bar – ‘North Carolina law stipulates one drink per person’ – and go over to check out the merchandise store. There are signed hatch printed posters and t-shirts for sale at $30 and copies of her new CD and an earlier DVD available at $20. These are expensive prices but the fans are lapping it up. It’s a real revenue stream for independent artists and I think the fans appreciate that and are more than willing to support it. We finally decide on a spot up by the stage and just to the right.
The stage itself is Spartan; just two mic stands with a vocal mic on each and an instrumental mic at waist level to pick up their guitars. Gillian’s side has an additional mic for what must be her banjo and there’s a mic taped to the floor to the right – not sure what that’s for. The stands sit on a small carpet with a little table to the rear. The stage is backed by two huge velvet curtains, bathed in a rich purple light. It has the feel and opulence of Victorian stages in their glory days. The venue is filling up fast and there’s a palpable sense of excitement.
At about eight the lights dim and a small chink appears in the stage curtains, running up like a split in a seam the whole twenty feet to the roof, and two gangly, thin characters stride through carrying two acoustic guitars. The crowd goes wild. It’s like being at a rock concert. The cheers are absolutely deafening. These guys are certainly on home turf here. Dave goes to the left and places a small box on the central table. This little box of mysteries has been part and parcel of their staging for years. It’s like a minature filing cabinet with four small drawers that are periodically delved into for various musical acoutriments. The last time we saw them was I 1999 (in the last century!) in Dublin and I’m pretty sure this was with them then. The guys take their positions and they’re off. It’s one of their new songs and the crowd is already singing along. It’s absolutely fantastic music. Gillian’s voice is even richer live, her lips drawn tight across her teeth as if she’s straining to get the emotion out. Dave’s accompaniment is even more complex, spontaneous and nuanced than in their recordings. There’s a subtle physicality about the way they play with Dave thrusting his guitar forward of his body towards the mic on his breaks and weaving with his musical lyricism. Gillian leans forlornly over her Gibson when she’s not singing, almost as if she’s shyly giving way from Dave’s his musical advances and allowing him to take the spotlight. It’s surprising how much Dave sings, but it’s always subtly supporting and highlighting Gillian. The lyrics are wonderful; simultaneously beautiful, bleak, brutal and with an old world sensibility that brings to mind much of the early music we’ve been listening to on this trip. There’s little chat but when there is it’s warm and affecting and very flattering to these Asheville die-hards. “Hey, you guys were our first sell-out show. Tell your friends up in Boone, it’s just a little drive up the road”.
On their song ‘Hard Times’ there’s a couplet, ‘So come on you Asheville boys, let’s make some old-time noise’ and when they get to this there is a positive explosion of cheers from the crowd. They go wild. It must feel good to be written down in musical history by two of the finest pensmiths in modern Americana. Dave tells us after the song, “Yeah, we’ve been using that line on our tour to gauge the fans reaction to Asheville. What did you guys do to Pittsburgh?” In about an hour the first set is over as they go to leave the stage they’re handed a bouquet of flowers from the audience. When they come back on to the stage, the flowers are in a vase and they set out on a set with the same mix of old and new. Dave performs one; “You know, every night I look at the set list and it says Dave! I still have to ask him, “Dave, do you want to sing one?,” says Gillian. Dave sings a couple that night, ‘Sweet Tooth’ and ‘Ruby’, both from their Dave Rawlings Machine project. Another hour passes like minutes and they are ‘sweating in their boots’. “Hey, we could have got one of the bigger venues with air conditioning, but where would the fun be in that!”
Gillian plays a number of songs on the banjo. It’s a sparse and beautiful contrast to the fuller sound of the guitar. During one set, Dave takes over banjo duties and Gillian treats us to some great hand clapping accompanyment and some flat-foot dancing – the purpose of the mic taped to the stage becomes clear. It’s fabulous stuff. The second set ends, but the crowd pulls them back for two encores. Finally they end on ‘I’ll Fly Away’. We feel as if we will. We, like everyone here, are walking on air.