Simply the Best

October 24th, 2011

Gillian Welch – Beacon Theatre – October 22, 2011

Gillian Welch’s sold-old performance at the Beacon Theatre on Saturday night was a study in the perfection of simplicity. Welch and her long-time musical partner, David Rawlings, stood side-by-side before a black backdrop on the large stage, empty but for some microphones, guitar stands and Rawlings’ weathered guitar amp—a minimal and striking tableaux. The duo’s musical collaboration on a modern blend of country, bluegrass and Americana is perhaps most remarkable for its ease and comfort. As they performed new material from Welch’s recent album, The Harrow & the Harvest, along with favorite cuts from her catalog and some choice covers, the duo effortlessly harmonized, weaving their guitar (and occasional banjo) lines and voices and into a seamless tapestry.

Some of the evening’s high points included a riveting rendition of “Revelator,” with Rawlings masterfully reaching out his hand to tune a string in the midst of a shredding guitar solo (and still managing to keep time), a lovely rendition of “Hard Times,” highlighting the interplay of banjo and Welch’s delicate voice, and the spirited addition of Welch’s percussive clapping and shuffling of her cowboy boots over Rawlings’ harmonica and banjo during “Six White Horses.” Toward the end of the second set, the duo mixed in several verses of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” during Rawlings’ “I Hear Them All,” and ended the night with a powerful version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”

Welch and Rawlings’ performance was proof that the duo needs little more than a handful of instruments and an audience to put on a great show. With these simple elements in place, the stage was perfectly set to showcase the music itself, at times delicate and nuanced and buoyant and cheerful—the most wonderfully complex element of the night. —Alena Kastin