Moved by angels

Beautiful mournful tales and songs of salvation at the Big Room

THANK YOU, GILL<br>Nashville singer/songwriter Gillian Welch’s star continues to rise. Her recent 23-minute sellout in Chico set a personal record.

Nashville singer/songwriter Gillian Welch’s star continues to rise. Her recent 23-minute sellout in Chico set a personal record.

Photo By David Johnson

From the opening song, “Look at Miss Ohio” (off the forthcoming CD Soul Journey, in stores June 3), to the last encore, a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues,” singer/songwriter/guitarist/banjoist and harmonica-playing sweetheart Gillian Welch and partner/guitarist David Rawlings held the audience in Sierra Nevada Brewery’s Big Room actually spellbound, I’m sure of it. My goodness, I was.

Anyone lucky enough to be there Sunday night—the show sold out in a record 23 minutes—likely experienced the kind of awe, pure bliss and deep thankfulness usually associated with spiritual awakening or the most sublime lovemaking. At times, I just had to lay down my pen and close my eyes. Scribbling notes was not the thing to do when being moved by angels.

Welch and Rawlings take stories of mundane tragedies and transform the sadness or desolation or ugliness of the situation into the most lovely and profoundly moving pieces, such as the new “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” a traditional number rewritten by Welch: “Make me down a pallet soft and low/ Babe, I’m broke and I got nowhere to go.” All night, the pair rendered mournful tales as if they were alchemists, taking human suffering and channeling it through divine harmonies and beautiful chords, with expertly finger-picked solos by Rawlings. I don’t consider myself a churchgoer, but this was the best church experience I’ve ever had.

And so ordinary. Welch up there with her little cowboy boots on, bare-legged, skirt to her knees. Rawlings dressed up in a suit. Both of them occasionally making little comments (“My banjo’s been happy ever since we hit California. … Exceptional banjo weather you’re having!”) Or wondering aloud how their show did so well in Chico (“Community radio!” someone in the crowd yelled).

There were plenty of dear old familiar songs this night (and they graced us with a nice, long show—I was driving out of there at about 11:30). “Elvis Presley Blues,” from Time (The Revelator), couldn’t have been cooler. “Red Clay Halo”: Oh my! “I Want to Sing That Rock And Roll”—so necessary, as was the graceful, “Everything is Free.” And the first encore, “Orphan Girl” (from Revival), which Welch introduced with “this just might be our greatest hit”—was breathtaking.

I also wouldn’t want to forget the song Rawlings performed, “Copper Kettle,” a topical number every bit as lovely as the others: “We’ll just lay there by the juniper … in the pale moonlight…” A song about makin’ moonshine that comes out sounding like a love song.

Welch and Rawlings are musicians/magicians of the highest order. I now see why people follow musicians from one show to the next. If that kind of life-transforming experience is available on a regular basis, my God, I’d like more, please.