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The Crossroads @ SECCA concert series, hosted by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, has come into its own. On Thursday night SECCA brought two shining lights of Folk music, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, to Winston-Salem, setting the jewel in this concert series' crown.
Welch first rose to prominence with her 1996 album Revival, and a few years later solidified her reputation with two appearances on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Singing alongside legends Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris placed Welch firmly in the Empyrean of Folk vocalists, a position she most certainly deserves.
Joining Welch at SECCA was her longtime musical partner Rawlings, a folk guitarist unlike any other. In a genre where "flatpicking" usually means burning the fingerboard off a Martin dreadnought with fiddle tunes, Rawlings' borrowings from blues and jazz and the raw, boxy tone from his 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop combine to form a highly idiosyncratic voice.
Playing through the dense heat and humidity of a North Carolina August, these two extraordinary musicians serenaded us with limitless grace and fluidity. Even after a full two sets, their lengthy several-song encore was most welcome. The performance was so grounded, comfortable, present, and transparent that I was able to take an unusually close analytical approach to the songwriting while listening.
Welch's music is connected to the entirety of the American folk tradition; it looks backward and forward simultaneously, and in this sense is truly timeless. The echoes of those who came before her are powerful and varied. In addition to the ever-present flavors of Folk and Folk-Rock, Old Time, Americana, Mountain Music, and Bluegrass, there is a punchy, tangy dollop of Delta Blues.
Skip James and Lightnin' Hopkins rise to the surface in numbers like "My First Lover," which sways hypnotically from major to minor and back again. The resemblance to classics like James' "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" (covered by fellow O Brother Where Art Thou artist Chris Thomas King) is there in spades; but the Blues' characteristic freedom of rhythm and tempo is replaced by the relentless forward drive of the Clawhammer banjo style.
Clawhammer appears just frequently enough to relieve the sweetness and depth of Gillian's 1957 Gibson J-50 flat top. "Rock of Ages" recalls the circular refrains and modal harmonic fabric of traditional Gospel tunes, a sound world into which Clawhammer slots perfectly. The banjo's presence also heralds an increase in tempo and energy. During their SECCA performance, Welch and Rawlings never approached the breakneck speeds of traditional Bluegrass; but when the banjo came out the tempo went up just enough to get boots stomping. Compared to their usual reserve, the banjo numbers felt plenty "bright," as pickers say.
Gentler sonic landscapes abound in Welch's oeuvre. In "Elvis Presley Blues," a soft, sweet pulsing replaces the unsettling swirl of the darker tunes. To match the reverie of thought and memory in the opening line ("I was thinking that night about Elvis, the day that he died...") the duo crafts a remarkable guitar accompaniment: Welch plucks out a Travis-like finger style pattern, while Rawlings weaves in soft whispers of blue notes and 7th chords. The combined effect is like an old, fading memory of a song: we hang on each subtle change of note and timbre while remaining suspended in time, eternally repeating the same few patterns.
Welch is a consummate folk artist with a versatile range of musical expression; but if asked to identify a strength in her writing, I would unquestionably pick her ballads. A standout on Thursday night was "One More Dollar." Longing for home is a recurring theme in American folk, and this tune squeezes in references to many classics from the genre – Emmylou Harris' "Hickory Wind," Grandpa Jones' "Eight More Miles to Louisville," and Flatt and Scruggs' "Gonna Settle Down" come immediately to mind.
Welch possesses a skill characteristic of all great balladeers: the ability to condense the important details of the narrative into a lyric space small enough to bear the shape of a singable melody and the weight of a frequent refrain. The richness and nuance of her contemplation seem disproportionately greater than the number of words she uses to express it – songwriting at its finest.
The show-stopping number in any Welch/Rawlings show is "Revelator," and true to form it brought the house down at SECCA. This epic ballad is spun from the musical tensions that define the pair's sound: plucked strings and soaring voices, narrative and contemplation, major and minor, earthy and ethereal. "Revelator" is also the ultimate showcase of Rawlings' playing. There's enough harmonic variety there to inform and underpin his colorful chromaticism, but each chord lasts just long enough to allow the occasional speedy lick. Rawlings went wild, piling phrase upon phrase and building an unbearable height of intensity before letting the solo settle gently back to earth.
A constant feature throughout the show was the immaculate blend and pitch accuracy of Welch and Rawlings' vocal harmonies. The fine mix (kudos to the sound engineer) and Rawlings' sensitivity lent color and airy breadth to Welch's expressive lead vocals. They should sound good together – they’ve had years to get it right. But somehow it was still breathtaking in the moment.
The most telling evidence of the duo's musicality was the crowd: they (and I) never seemed to tire of standing up in the damp, hazy Carolina heat. Gillian and David, I'm sure you got the message sent by the crowd and our endless energy. But for clarity's sake I'll put it here in writing: you can come back to the Triad any time.