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Gillian Welch & David Rawlings


Fantastic, stem to stern. This is the pudding that the proof is in.

After the unthinkably surefooted rise of this act and the confoundingly unpredictable breakthrough of the O Brother phenomenon, a certain degree of backlash was inevitable. I was shocked by NPR music critic Ken Tucker’s lambasting of their song "Elvis Presley Blues," calling it "the worst song about Elvis ever written." It’s a brilliant and truly original song, a country blues gem fashioned after John Hurt’s "Spikedriver Blues." When one considers all the idolatrous, imitative, and sycophantic material that is King-derived, it’s actually pretty funny. In fact, when I saw the duo at a sushi bar one night and asked them if they’d seen the review, they intimated that they pay no particular attention to such things. When I shared his judgement with them, they both laughed and got a kick out of it, said that they thought it was all good, whatever people say.

And sure, it’s become a little fashionable in some circles to think or to say "I’m just a little over it, you know?" Not to mention that a front man for a fabulous roots band did a run of comics that circulated around that featured very sarcastic commentary on this act and the surrounding hubbub. People take issue with the fact they adopted a nuvo Appalachia image, when they are urbane folks from upscale backgrounds who met at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Who cares. "All that matters," as a fantastic guitarist friend used to tell me, "is what’s coming out of that speaker."

And not just out of that speaker, in this case, but out of that video monitor. Because with this pair, the visual aspect is very important. When Snake Boy and Olive Oil step up to the mic to do their thing, buddy, they are mighty. There is not a duo on the planet that can touch them at this time. Their compositions past and present roll right over the vast majority of their contemporaries, and their grasp of the history of duo harmony is non pareil, exemplified in their vocal arrangements that move freely between sweet thirds, lonesome fourths and fifths, and close, tense intervals that create colors that precious few know how to conjure or use musically.

David Rawlings has quietly become one of the most respected acoustic guitarists on stage today. For the right reasons, for a change. His choice of notes. He indelibilizes the material consistently by leaning on all the color notes in the chord, and driving the blue ones home, without ever playing a blues lick per se. If he plays a lick, it’s a bluegrass lick, and he’ll do it in a bluesy way, like the legendary Clarence White. If ever I’ve heard anyone speak less than glowingly about his guitar playing, it clunked with that Tuckerian hollowness. Gillian is rock solid on rhythm acoustic, and a deft fingerpicker. She’s become a good clawhammer banjo player, too, and that added a lot of color and some excellent songs to the repertoire, like "My First Lover," which appears in the first portion of this DVD.

There are nine live cuts here, five of which are previously unreleased. Four selections are covers, by Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bill Monroe, and Townes Van Zandt. (Gillian and David are also known for their excellent cover songs, especially in their alter-ego group, The Esquires.) The performances are stunning. But by far, my favorite part is the footage of three songs shot in the hallowed RCA Studio B while recording their best and spookiest record, Time (The Revelator). Director Mark Seliger and Director of Photography Michael Garofalo do a remarkable job of bringing home the enlightened nature of the enterprise, it’s unbelievable.

We thought that Time (The Revelator) was hands down the best record of 2001, and we think this collection will stand the test of time, confirming our solid opinion that they are the absolutely best duo working today, and one of the best in history. We urge you to buy this DVD, and to see Gillian Welch and David Rawlings when they come to your town.
• FG

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gillianwelch.com       markseliger.com (the dvd's director)

alec wilkinson's profile of gillian welch

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