It’s hard to believe it had been seven years since the last Gillian Welch concert in Chicago. Playing Friday night (July 22) at the Vic, Gillian Welch and her indispensable partner, David Rawlings, picked up right where they left off: beautiful songs with subtle harmonies and head-spinning guitar solos. Welch writes that sort of lyrics that strike you anew with their poetry and truth as you hear them sung in concert, even if you’ve heard them a hundred times before.
As the doors to the concert hall opened and fans began filing in, I noticed Welch walking on the sidewalk in front of the Vic. No one else seemed to notice she was right there. Onstage, her persona was not shy, exactly — but she seems modest, humble and matter-of-fact. “We may not look excited, but we’re really very excited,” Welch remarked at one point. Rawlings frequently won midsong bursts of applause for all those long runs of notes he pulled out of his guitar with what seemed like no effort at all. This is truly a duo, not a solo singer-songwriter act — the duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who perform under the name Gillian Welch.
The showiest Welch herself got all night was during “Six White Horses,” which she introduced semi-apologetically, explaining that it was recorded in the studio without much thought as to how the performance would look onstage. Here’s how it looked: Welch played the rhythm by slapping her hands on her thighs and clapping … and she even did a little dance during one part of the song, using her boots like tap shoes. It sounded remarkably close to the studio recording — and it was quite fun to watch, winning Welch one of the evening’s most enthusiastic rounds of applause.
Welch played all 10 of the songs from her excellent new album, The Harrow & the Harvest, which is one of the year’s best. After a lively version of the 2003 song “Wrecking Ball” — second time Welch and Rawlings had played the song so far on this tour — Rawlings said, “I think we’ll do you one better and play you one we haven’t played on this tour at all. I feel like we’re in friendly territory.” That was the intro to “My Morphine,” a classic song from Welch’s 1998 album Hell Among the Yearlings. Welch’s songs tend to be sad, but that one is among the darkest of all. The crowd loved it. Afterward, Welch remarked, “I figured most of you guys didn’t come to hear happy songs, so what the hell.”
The applause at the end of the night was loud, enthusiastic and sustained. Welch and Rawlings rewarded the crowd with two encores, including a cover of the country classic “Jackson” and finishing on a perfect note with “I’ll Fly Away.”
SET LIST: Scarlet Town / Elvis Presley Blues / My First Lover / The Way It Goes / Annabelle / The Way It Will Be / Wrecking Ball / My Morphine / Hard Times / Red Clay Halo / SET BREAK / No One Knows My Name / Tennessee / Silver Dagger / Miss Ohio / Six White Horses / Sweet Tooth (Dave Rawlings Machine song) / Dark Turn of Mind / Revelator / ENCORE 1: Down Along the Dixie Line / Jackson / ENCORE 2: The Way the Whole Thing Ends / I’ll Fly Away