Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, on stage at the Crystal Ballroom, tearing through a better-than-perfect cover of Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” As soon as they break into it, the stunned, packed house goes silent. Welch is belting each lyric, catching and holding on to every melodic upswing that Nicks originally sang the song with. And she’s smiling at the same time, knowing full well what they are pulling off. Rawlings colors the chords that Welch fingers with a series of brilliant, hyper solos. And then he goes into his best Tom Petty drawl, nearly screaming, “I know you really want to tell me goodbye, I know you really want to be your own girl, stop draggin’ my, stop draggin’ my, stop draggin’ my heart around.” This is one of those rare musical moments that you can’t recreate. It happens and then it’s gone. It’s magic incarnate.
Welch and Rawlings, who aren’t actually supporting or promoting anything on their tour (Welch’s most recent record, Soul Journey was released back in June 2003), played for over two magnificent hours and had the eyes and ears of over a thousand fans in the palm of their hands the entire night. Their set was dynamic, intense and widely unpredictable. They played new, as yet unreleased songs. They reinterpreted tracks off Welch’s three most recent LPs. “No One Knows My Name,” off Soul Journey, had a hard waltz feel to it). They covered Johnny Cash and June Carter’s “Jackson.” They covered a gospel number. And Welch herself declared the performance to be the duo’s “goofiest show ever in Portland.”
What continues to make the Welch-Rawlings show so musically interesting and essential is the manner in which the duo plays off of each other. They interspaced songs whose lyrical content revolves around loneliness, misery and longing with silly, in-between-song chatter and off-hand jokes. And together they deconstructed and reinvented the musical myths that revolve around folk music. With only two acoustic guitars, or the occasional banjo, and two perfectly matched voices on a bare stage, Welch and Rawlings created a sound as timeless as it is refreshingly new and profound.
Throughout the evening, Rawlings created chaotic yet unmistakably melodic solos that wandered up and down the fret board, cutting through the alluring haze that is Welch’s voice. And throughout the evening, Welch, with deceptive ease, pulled lines out of her throat – such as “Leaving the valley out of sight/I’ll go back to Cali where I can sleep out every night/and watch the waves and move the fader. Time’s the revelator” – that cut straight to the bone.
For an act that seems to play Portland every time October rolls around, Welch and Rawlings have in no way fallen into complacency. They are a guaranteed 1,000-plus person draw and can merely walk on stage and draw a deafening applause. Yet their recent set at the Crystal Ballroom saw them consistently pushing and stretching their own musical boundaries. Welch and Rawlings tore it up for over two hours at the Crystal last week. They burned. And to be in the audience, as the two gave Nicks/Petty a serious run for their heyday-money, and to watch them do it with ease and a smile was to be very fortunate. Name another relevant artist in music today (besides Bob Dylan) who can continue to astound and provoke, without relying on any fakery or tricks. Who can hit on every musical level – lyrically, melodically, historically – and do it without falling into mind numbing, rote predictability. You can’t.