Most successful bands seem to possess at least one secret weapon – a dynamic front person; a flashy lead guitarist; pyrotechnics – that allows them to stand out from the myriad acts vying for our entertainment dollar. Singer-songwriter Gillian Welch, in addition to her own impressive arsenal, has two such weapons, both of which are her musical partner David Rawlings in the form of his harmony singing and guitar playing. The couple’s various musical weaponry was firing at full force at the recently renovated Georgia Theatre in Athens at the venue’s first ever Sunday performance on August 14.
Rawlings’s seamless and nearly always atypical harmony singing blended with Welch’s voice in ways that made it difficult at times to tell where one’s voice ended and the other’s began. He always manages to find the perfect melancholy notes in songs such as opener “Tear My Stillhouse Down,” crowd favorite “Look At Miss Ohio,” and the plaintive “The Way It Will Be,” one of the half dozen or so tunes the duo played from their latest release, The Harrow & The Harvest.
Rawlings also played his vintage f-hole acoustic as if he were completely possessed by the music he was squeezing out of the strings. His masterful accompaniment during the verses and choruses occasionally bordered on busy but never crossed that line. And his breathtaking solos, though jaw-dropping in their complexity, were always tasteful and staunchly melodic, as on “Elvis Presley Blues,” the popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? number “I’ll Fly Away,” and what has become one of their signature tunes, the thoroughly moving “Revelator.”
Of course, Ms. Welch was in top form as well. Her aching voice and deceptively simple melodies were still at the forefront—where they should be—and her instrumental foundation, either on acoustic guitar or banjo, was ever solid. During one song, “Six White Horses,” Welch even used her own body as a percussion instrument and added some fancy step-dancing during the instrumental breaks.
Despite the slightly-late-for-a-Sunday start of 9:15 p.m. and a nearly 30-minute intermission, the packed crowd at the beautifully revamped Georgia Theatre did now want to see Welch and Rawlings leave the stage, and the enthusiastic mob were rewarded with two encores (consisting of five songs), including a spine-tingling cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” that closed the show.