There are many adjectives I could use to describe Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ performance Friday night at the Tower Theatre. Magical, transcendent, exhilarating, captivating or stunning.
None do what I witnessed proper justice.
Perhaps “prophetic” best suits this evening. This show was fresh on the heels of my interview with Tower Theatre Talent Buyer, Chad Whitehead, in which he discussed his objective of booking talent. [To read this interview click one of these bolded words.] He indicated he wants as big a talent as his room can hold, and in particular a desire to book more strong female talent. Prophetic indeed. Mission accomplished by the way.
Billed as an “evening with,” there was no opening act. None were needed. Welch and Rawlings held the nearly sold out audience transfixed the entirety of their performance. Rarely have I ever seen an audience so mesmerized and energized by a performance based in such simplicity. Equally, performers that were so energized by an audience. It was readily obvious, that Welch and Rawlings were enjoying themselves throughout, as well as this energy fed from the crowd. I would even venture to speculate that they were surprised by it. In the past, top tier acts skirted around us here. They would hit Tulsa or Dallas instead. No more. Welcome to Oklahoma City. We’re making up for lost time.
The duo took the stage a bit past the 8pm start time. Gillian quickly acknowledged the crowd with a wave, a smile and a hello as Rawlings arranged their “equipment box” upon the table that acted as the solitary yet functional stage prop. Wasting no further time, Welch quietly counted them into “Scarlet Town.” A beautiful “Rock of Ages” followed with Welch swapping out her acoustic guitar for her banjo. We would see the banjo several times over the course of the evening, including in the hands of Rawlings. Stating that this particular banjo was the oldest and “crankiest” item on the stage, Welch indicated it pre-dated Rawlings’ ever-present 1935 archtop by about ten years. It was as stunning in appearance as it was sonically, and welcomed by the crowd at every instance. Announcing that the setlist had been tossed out with the performance of “Rock of Ages,” we were treated to whatever came to mind from the duo for the remainder of the evening.
The show was broken up into two sets, the first of which included Rawlings’ own song “Midnight Train,” and “ The Way It Will Be,” which was introduced as “one guaranteed to bring you right down.” Next, was “The Way It Goes,” which Welch stated “this might be faster, but a little sadder,” with Rawlings adding, “and a higher body count.” The first set closed out with “Elvis Presley Blues” and a simply stunning rendition of “Red Clay Halo.”
With the second set, the two started off with the same intensity that had closed the first, with “Wayside/Back in Time” and “Hard Times.” The next portion of the show left little doubt as to the value of Rawlings, both as a musician and companion. “Down Along the Dixieline” included some of the most impressive acoustic leads and accompaniment I’ve seen in some time. Rawlings masters the instrument like few can, and it’s truly an honor to witness. Next with Rawlings taking up the aforementioned banjo, the instrument lived up to its earlier bestowed reputation of “cranky.”
Nearly immediately breaking a string while tuning, Rawlings was forced to quickly re-string while Welch entertained with her wry, witty humor. As Rawlings utilized the now essential “equipment box,” Welch informed us that Rawlings didn’t mind tuning everything for them, as it meant he didn’t have to talk as much. She also asked about the Blue Door, and if it was still around (it is). As Rawlings finished the task at hand, Welch told us that the Blue Door was the first place they had played in Oklahoma City. It was their real first tour, and they were on the road supporting Guy Clark. What a night that must have been.
With the banjo re-strung and tuned, they next played “Six White Horses.”
While Rawlings expertly plucked away at the banjo, Welch played “body percussion” and performed an Appalachian step dance much to the delight of the crowd. “Revelator” and another Rawlings song, “Cumberland Gap,” followed, and was highlighted by yet more amazing fretboard work. As the second set began to wind down, we were treated to “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor,” which Gillian indicated they had learned from Doc Watson.
And at that point it hit me. That was the common denominator I had been missing. Perhaps the only other performance I’ve ever seen, that was as memorable in its starkness and simplicity was a performance by Doc Watson many years ago at the annual Old Settler’s Festival in Austin. This type of moment, when the audience and the performer mesh together and share an energy, doesn’t happen every day. You have to treasure these moments.
Closing out this stellar evening was a six song encore highlighted by “Orphan Girl,” “Look at Miss Ohio,” and the Townes Van Zandt sing-a-long classic, “White Freightliner.” “I’ll Fly Away”, the final song of the evening, was one that was a perfect summary of everything we’d just experienced. It was an evening that still has me smiling as I write this, and one I believe will still have me smiling until the next time they roll through town.