Live Review: Gillian Welch

8 February 2016 | 12:12 pm | Joel Lohman

"Rawlings wrangles his guitar like it's trying to get away from him. Welch is hunched over her Gibson like it's a dying relative."

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Gillian Welch and her partner, musical and otherwise, Dave Rawlings emerge from the shadows of the Palais; she in flowing, lacy dress, he in brown suit and cream-coloured cowboy hat. They look like the bride and groom on top of a wedding cake and there's as much goodwill for them in this theatre as there would be if they were newlyweds. Beginning with Scarlet Town, the pair takes us on what feels like a journey through the last several hundred years of folk, country and bluegrass music. After Elvis Presley Blues and My First Lover it's clear that these songs aren't being performed, but rather they're pouring out of these people's bones. "This one's kind of a downer," Rawlings laughs before a note-perfect rendition of the heartbreaking The Way It Will Be.

Rawlings' backing vocals and accomplished guitar playing add immeasurably to the energy of tonight's performance, with the crowd hootin' and hollerin' during his near-constant, but somehow not at all obnoxious, solos. Rawlings wrangles his guitar like it's trying to get away from him. Welch is hunched over her Gibson like it's a dying relative. The scope of sounds and emotions this pair can pluck and pull from their strings is astounding. Welch's warm and emotive voice is accompanied only by her banjo for the first half of the stirringly resolute Hard Times. She provides hand-clapping, thigh-slapping percussion during Six White Horses and even hitches up her dress and tap dances in her cowboy boots while Rawlings plucks away on the banjo. It really feels like an important part of music history is being lovingly preserved — some would say perfected — before our eyes. Having already thoroughly won over the audience, Rawlings assumes lead vocals on the endearing Sweet Tooth, which Welch counters with the especially mournful Tennessee, followed by ghost ballad Caleb Meyer and a standing ovation.

Look At Miss Ohio inspires some pretty emphatic head nodding and a third standing ovation. Everything Is Free (chorus: "That's what they say/Everything I ever done/Gotta give it away") has reviewers who use Spotify to brush up on Welch's catalogue shifting uncomfortably in their seats. But this is soon followed by an absolutely joyous version of the hymn I'll Fly Away and yet another standing ovation as they leave the stage. This time when they return they stand at the very edge of the stage, ask for silence, and sing The Long Black Veil in this cavernous theatre with no amplification whatsoever. The audience collectively leans forward to soak in this beautifully intimate moment. It is the perfect ending to a truly special night of music. A sixth standing ovation is in order.