Gillian Welch sings that rock n’ roll to Winston-Salem crowd

by Ryan Snyder

Gillian Welch breaks her writer’s block at the Millennium Center. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

Williams Goldman once said that the easiest thing to do on earth is not write, a discipline to which Gillian Welch can no doubt sympathize. After creating one of the single greatest folk albums ever in 2001’s Time (The Revelator), she tried embellishing her acoustic sound with organs and electric guitar on Soul Journey to slightly cooler reception.

What ensued afterwards was a state that could be described as only slightly less agonizing than chemotherapy. Writer’s block is a demon not easily exorcised, and it possessed Welch for nearly a decade.

Enter her June release The Harrow & The Harvest, and Welch has another 10 songs entered into her well-appointed catalog of work built on old-time idioms that the Cali-born-and-bred Welch seems to channel from another lifetime. She may never stray from her own conventions, but it feels like a new work of art in its own right is created every time Welch and her steadfast songwriting and performing partner David Rawlings step on stage together. The pair’s performance at the Millennium Center last Thursday was no different.

There’s a rapport between Welch and Rawlings that suggests both should have existed decades ago in some Appalachian hamlet where social mores are preserved like jars of dewberry and pectin. The buttoned-up smart- ness of Rawlings’ jacket and Stetson is always in slight contrast to the modesty of Welch’s homespun dress and flat red hair. With their vintage instruments in hand— Rawlings’ 1935 Epiphone Olympic and Welch with a ’56 Gibson — both stand as the personification of the music they create together.

White curtains hung all around the venue as dampeners to the occasionally invasive reverb that affects louder shows there, but they were also a chaste garnish to Welch and Rawlings’ Spartan presence. Their set opened not with a selection from The Harrow & The Harvest, but with “Orphan Girl,” whose unaffected sincerity shows Welch communicating her heart and soul in their rawest form. The set did feature plenty of the new material — eight of the album’s 10 songs to be exact — though not all have that enduring, focused quality of Welch’s many truly great works. “The Way That It Goes” comes off as a confused patchwork of missives loosely strung together by Rawlings’ chromatic fingerpick runs. It’s a respectable song in its own right, but too typical of lesser songwriters.

There are a few on The Harrow & The Harvest that fit that description — “Silver Dagger” and “Tennessee” fill the murder and drinking song quota respectively — but there are others imbued with Welch’s exceptionalism that transcend topicality. When she sings the line, “They gonna rule my mind,” “Hard Times” feels faintly like Welch laying her own troubles out rather than serving as the spiritual medium for a part generation. She later turned handclaps into hoof clops and clogged through the instrumental passages to the pastoral “Six White Horses” while Rawlings bore the harmonica and banjo burden.

“I haven’t clogged publicly before this tour, but this was the loudest stage I’ve been on so far,” Welch said with a big grin.

Her covers acquiesced into her two sets so fluidly that you’d hardly notice they belong to other songwriters. She transformed Radiohead’s “Black Star” into an adagio promenade that honed the blunted beauty of the original, and she likewise tamed Townes Van Zandt’s frenetic “White Freightliner Blues” to her behest.

As long as it took Welch to pull together a new offering, it might be asking too much for her and Rawlings to invent new stage banter. It’s almost expected to hear Rawlings’ story about the wonderful sound from Chet Atkins’ guitar (“How’s it sound now,” as he pulls his hands away), and every time “Caleb Meyer” is called upon as a closer there’s something about the Bluegrass Musicians Union and its murder ballad quota. It’s easy to forgive, though, especially when they offered up encore after encore that included the gorgeous and chilling pairing of “Everything Is Free” and “Time (the Revelator).”

Their third and final curtain call involved no mics, no lighting, just Welch and Rawlings pulling the crowd in as close as can be for a hushed living room serenade of “Long Black Veil,” the first song the pair ever played together. Her recorded work may never again be as faultless as she once was, but as long as she has a stage to sing on, Welch will have something special to give.