Gillian Welch, with
David Rawlings & the
Old Crow Medicine Band
at Shepherds Bush Empire,
London, England
(29 July 2004)

Yeah, yeah, it's been said hundreds of times before, but I have to say it again. How can someone who was born in New York City and raised in Hollywood sound as if she just stepped out of a holler in Appalachia? The between-song patter reveals her true origins, but when she opened with "Tear My Stillhouse Down," the woman in a black gingham sundress with matching black cowboy boots both looked and sounded as if she came from "them there hills."

"It's nice to be here," she said before starting her second song, "I Want to Sing That Old Rock 'n' Roll," and it seemed as if she truly meant it. The show would last for a good two hours, with just she and Rawlings playing guitars and banjos and singing harmonies that sounded as if their voices were made to blend together. Without any other instruments -- no fiddles, drums, keyboards, etc. -- Rawlings produced the bass beats, the riffs and the trills needed.

Welch admits that she and Rawlings are known for their depressing numbers. "The only trouble that we have when trying to decide what to play," she confessed, "is that most people only have to fit in one sad, slow song. I have to balance the shades of grey. We already had the sad, pitiful slot filled for the evening," she said in response to an audience request. "Geez, you asked so nicely," she said, though, sounding impressed, and went ahead and played "My First Lover."

"So, speaking of the sad and pitiful part of the program, we had a request to do these two numbers. I guess we're going to go all the way down," Rawlings said, letting his voice drift away as the audience laughed. Rawlings confirmed that these, too, are songs that they don't often perform, "Ruination Day, Part II" and "April the 14th, Part 1." Both numbers about disasters, the two songs are related. April 14th is the day Abraham Lincoln, "the great emancipator," died, or as Welch sings, "took a bullet in the back of his head." These songs cover such disasters as Lincoln's assassination, the Titanic sinking and the Dust Bowl -- told as furious storytelling with twang and desperate guitars.

Throughout the evening, Welch played audience requests, covered other people's songs and performed songs both new and old. "Time the Revelator" was a crowd pleaser, and it also gave Rawlings an opportunity to strut his stuff on an acoustic guitar; one can only imagine what he could do given the chance to attack an electric instrument. His finger picking, along with her earnest, plaintive vocals, lift up the pace of the traditional "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor," as learned from Doc Watson. Their cover of Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'm Staying Here with You," another song she admitted that they don't perform frequently, turned out to be one of the lighter songs of the evening -- a slow, romantic love song.

Apparently, for each show, Rawlings has the chance to start a song. "This is always exciting," she admitted, "because I never know what song Dave is going to sing." He grinned and confessed to the audience that he didn't usually know, either. She gradually joined in on guitar and smiled as she recognized the song, Robyn Hitchcock's "Luminous Rose," and started to sing backing vocals, one of the first times when he took the lead. The two of them have been performing together for over 10 years, and their natural chemistry is obvious.

Welch and Rawlings had won over the audience from the very start and could not lose them for anything, not even the heat. The pair played on one of the hottest days of the year. At one point, late in the show, Welch asked that the air conditioning be turned off simply because the fans were too loud. When the audience grumbled, she merely smiled and stated that Dave was in a black wool suit. According to their normal procedure, they would turn the fans back on when he passed out.

Black suit or not, Rawlings did stand the better chance of passing out, considering he'd been on stage practically the entire night. For the encore, his opening band, the Old Crow Medicine Show, returned to play with Welch. The London audience has harkened to their "acoustic" opening act -- the microphones were pointed to their instruments, but other than that, Old Crow was unplugged. It was their first trip across the pond, and although someone in the audience did yell out a correction when a band member mispronounced "Glasgow," their authentic Americana sound excused such gaffes. When Welch, Rawlings and the rest of the Old Crows started their final encores, "The Weight" and "John Henry," they were holding the audience in the palms of their hands.

However, Welch and Rawlings couldn't just end it that way. There was time for one more song -- just for the two of them. "This is the first song that Dave and I ever sang together," she said, speaking of Lefty Frizzell's classic, the spooky "Long Black Veil."

Between the pair of them, Welch and Rawlings bewitched the crowd just as the woman "who walks these hills" in "Long Black Veil." When Welch plays, she sometimes looks like an old woman scrunched down over her work. Leaning way over her guitar, she watches the strings as she plays; she's fastidious, just as the wise old woman in the hills who knows the old cures and very, very carefully takes care of the people around her. Welch may not be from "them there hills" literally, but there's a part of her that has inherited that sage woman way of taking care of her audience and treating them to a delightful evening.

- Rambles
written by Ellen Rawson
published 18 September 2004