It’s a mutual, musical love affair. Asheville adores Gillian Welch, and she loves Asheville right back. In Welch’s most recent album, there’s even a nod to our town with the lyrics, “Come on you Asheville, boys. Turn up your old-time noise.”
Gillian Welch’s Tuesday, April 22 show at The Orange Peel had a sweet note of familiarity to some of her prior local performances. Devoted fans gathered to have the shared experience of hearing a repertoire of soulful songs that ranged from a joyful noise to beautiful sadness. There was an element of quiet — a reverence for the space between the notes. This spaciousness was interwoven with the melodic playfulness in collaborator David Rawlings’ masterful guitar licks.
After opening the concert with Scarlet Town — the first track off her most recent album, The Harrow and the Harvest — Welch addressed the question that has been on many people’s mind. Why the last minute set of concert dates? She said, “It’s pretty much because we felt like playing them.” The brief tour kicked off in Asheville and and includes nearby Charlotte and Bristol, Tenn. Hitting the road again in June, another six tour dates (including the Ryman Auditorium and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival) are scheduled for Dave Rawlings Machine.
Later in the evening, Welch commented how some musicians hardly leave the house unless it’s to tour on behalf of an album. She acknowledged that she and Rawlings are troubadours, and playing live music is just what they do. “As long as you keep coming,” she told the Asheville crowd, “we’ll keep coming back.”
Dave Rawlings Machine (with Welch) performed a sold-out show at the Gray Eagle in November. When performing under DRM, Rawlings takes the lead with faster-paced songs and adds more musicians to fill out the sound. Sometimes this includes band members from Old Crow Medicine Show, and at the fall performance, John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin joined in on mandolin.
Tuesday’s show at the the Orange Peel gave more people a chance to attend, but the larger audience was no less attentive to the stage. The evocative simplicity of instruments and voice held the crowd’s rapt attention. The air was filled with an Americana twang of guitars, banjo, harmonica and even a moment of clogging.
In the album release chronology, there was a six year break after Soul Journey in 2003. Dave Rawlings Machine then put out A Friend of a Friend in 2009, and Welch released Harrow and the Harvest in 2011. Tuesday’s performance gave no hint of a new album — no new songs were tested. The setlist did not focus on a single album, but instead spanned across Welch and Rawlings’ entire history of songs. With Welch in a gingham dress and Rawlings in a suit and cowboy hat, the duo played crowd favorites such as “Red Clay Halo,” “Look at Miss Ohio,” “Hard Times” and “Caleb Meyer.” The jazz of Rawling’s exploratory guitar riffs, particularly during “Revelator,” garnered lots of love from the crowd.
The show had two encores. The first had the crowd singing along to “I’ll Fly Away.” In response to the crowd enthusiastically calling out for a second encore, the duo returned to the stage, and Welch said, “Well shoot, I was going to play a sad song.” As the group tours, they usually pick up a signature cover song that wows the crowd. For a while this song was “The Weight,” by The Band. Then they turned up the reverb for a version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” that was both surreal and ethereal. In this show (and perhaps as foreshadowing future concerts in this tour), the duo closed out the concert with an epic performance of “Jackson,” the Johnny Cash and June Carter hit single. Welch and Rawlings sang, “We got married in a fever,” as the crowd stomped and clapped in response.