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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Welch & Rawlings Wow Northampton

Welch & Rawlings:  Spiritual-Musical Heirs of John Dowland?

Gillian Welch in Concert—In reality, it’s a shorthand for Gillian Welch & David Rawlings in Concert. Welch without Rawlings is yin without yang; Laurel without Hardy. Three standing ovations at the end of their November 28th two-hour concert at the Calvin Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts celebrated the musical beast with two fronts & two backs--Welch & Rawlings. (Still, their website and my Calvin ticket cast their brand as “Gillian Welch.”)

Throughout the evening, Welch’s distinctive, nuanced alto and phrasings embodied the constancy of a mature yet ominous river of song. Midway through each number, Rawlings responded with guitar improvisations that consistently surprised while adding crepuscular shadings.  They cut odd harmonic channels and at times added intensity through wanderings on the outskirts of dissonance.

Flow gently their tears
Above all, Welch & Rawlings excelled in material from The Harrow and the Harvest, their  first new cd in seven years. On the disc and on stage, they have embraced an aesthetic that holds melancholy to be most sacred (and thoroughly profane). Together, they’ve donned melancholia’s dark musical vestments, enshrouding themselves and their audience in somber songs like “Scarlet Town,” a “Dark Turn of Mind,” and “The Way It Goes.”  For up-tempo irony at the Calvin, they turned to “Six White Horses,” a thigh-slapping, shoe clomping reverie about a proto-hearse that comes for mama and by the song’s end for the singer/narrator herself. It brought down the house.

In their glass-is-half-empty aesthetic, Welch &Rawlings prove worthy descendants of John Dowland, the post-Elizabethan composer-singer-lutenist whose art exemplified his own dictum: “The Dark Is My Delight.” For him and other practitioners of the genre, melancholia was a good thing—a low-risk musical dwelling place for exploring and embracing dark emotional waters.  As fellow travelers, Welch and Rawlings follow suit but with (at least)  one notable difference—they explore those depths through a woman’s lens. That take on darkness is their delight—and ours.


Dark Turn of Mind:

Flow My Tears (Dowland):

Bonus Track: The Sick Rose (Benjamin Britten/William Blake)

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