Just occasionally, artists come along that manage to exceed the boundaries of market-enforced categorisation with an expansive talent so irresistible that even well-worn clichs or stylistic flourishes within those categories take on new force. With nothing more than the base materials of the rootsier tradition of Country, Gillian Welch is one such artist.
There’s no Grand Old Opry fanfare though to introduce La Welch and fellow traveller David Rawlings as they quietly take the stage to a packed and expectant full house at Shepherd’s Bush Empire tonight. So full in fact, that the ever-circling touts outside are reduced to panhandling for tickets. Inside, the presence of a few music industry insiders add to the feeling that we are about to stand witness to a genuine event. There are even a few honest-to-gosh genuine muso’s – older readers may recall names such as Chrissie Hynde and Robyn Hitchcock.
Part of Welch’s ability to appeal beyond Country’s borders is borne by a possibly unconscious ability to footnote other artists not strictly within the Country canon. Perhaps this is natural enough, as Welch and Rawlings both hail from Berkeley College, at a time when the likes of The Breedersand The Pixies were more likely to be found within the student’s CD collections. Welch herself has professed a love for REM.
Indeed, the bluegrass of Rock Of Ages carries an inference of minstrel wisdom passed down through the centuries, a mood captured by Bob Dylan and The Band on The Basement Tapes. Sometimes the suggestion is more overt, like in the reading of Hendrix’s Manic Depression, played as a tail-light fading lament worthy of any great blues master. Welch doesn’t acknowledge the request of Purple Haze from the otherwise rapt audience.
Rudimentary instrumentation, land-locked tales of loss, regret, drifting, and small-town blue-collar blues are all present-and-correct stand-by’s in the songs composed by herself and Rawlings, two musicians that play like one. However, it’s a perennial search for identity, and the desire for transcendence that mark out Welch’s territory. These themes are continuously evident by metaphor in that song, and clearly stated in No One Knows My Name, the protagonist a stranger in a familiar land.
In between songs, Welch herself enlightens us of one evening playing opposite the Hollywood Bowl on an evening when tinnitus-riddled The Who were inside playing to customary decibel-worrying volume, thus cutting out the meagre amplification of Welch’s performance. There’s palpable envy in the tale, one played out in I Want to Play That Rock ‘n’ Roll, a paean to untrammelled desire.
Despite the two-hour show, and a good showing of current album Soul Journey and 2001’s Time (The Revelator), there are the standard grumbles about missing tracks. Most noticeably Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor (a traditional arrangement featuring the low-down cry of ‘No-one ever had the blues like me”, and Wayside / Back In Time (in a better world, a hit single) from Soul Journey.
These are minor, pedantic protests though. In the second, unplanned encore we are treated to an impromptu performance of I Dream A Highway, Time (The Revelator)’s extended 14-minute final track. The band deserved the standing ovation just for remembering all the words. Charlie Richmay have memorably sung Feel Like Going Home, but tonight’s audience certainly didn’t.