Gillian Welch and David Rawlings return to Milwaukee at last
Forgoing an opening act, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings took the stage at The Pabst Theater just after 8 p.m. Monday night.
After the audience acknowledged them with some applause, the pair launched into "Orphan Girl" while a patient audience let the two play without any interruption. After the song was over, Welch confided that she was thrown by their attentiveness. "You guys were so quiet, you almost made me mess up." Fortunately, The Pabst audience didn't abuse the power it'd been granted and remained respectful of the musicians.
Part of the appeal of Welch's music is that she really can't be classified in one genre. Early in the evening, Welch joked about made-up terms that writers have created to describe her blend of country, bluegrass and folk. It had been about five years since Welch last performed in Milwaukee, but she joked that the last time she was in town was when she opened for Alison Krauss "back in the early '60s."
This example highlights the playful sense of humor Welch and Rawlings have. While they aren't necessarily telling jokes, their personalities and the anecdotes they share illicit laughter from the crowd. For example, before one tune Rawlings was blunt in saying that "this next song is kind of a downer." His introduction to the next song was a perfect follow-up. "This one is faster, but not really happier."
Rawlings also told a funny story about the first time he and Welch were in Wisconsin. As the two drove through the state en route to Minnesota, they stumbled across a radio station that was a stereotype of the state. The polka music that was being played was interrupted by an announcer with breaking news about an explosion at a cheese factory. It was clear that this story was not manufactured, as Welch was having flashbacks to the car ride and vouching that every word Rawlings said was true.
After about an hour, Welch and Rawlings took a 20-minute intermission. While the break was likely beneficial for them and the venue, it disrupted the momentum of the evening. The first set of the night was a great blend of slow and fast songs. However, when the two returned to the stage, they launched into a series of slower songs. Welch also took a moment to honor the memory of country music legend Kitty Wells, who recently passed away. "I wish these great musicians would stop dying," said a candid Welch.
The highlight of the second set was Welch and Rawlings' performance of "Revelator." The epic instrumental finish to the song served as a showcase for the two musicians, who seem to match each other perfectly. Rawlings is the type of guitar player who is fascinating to watch.
Even when playing at lightning-fast speed, he seems to perform with total ease. His gentle voice is also an excellent compliment to Welch, whose voice is like Aimee Mann meets Americana. With more than 20 years performing together, both Welch and Rawlings know how to draw the best out of one another.
While Welch's music might not be the type of thing one hears on mainstream radio, she has carved out a nice, dedicated niche. The Pabst audience seemed like it would have been on board with an additional set or two.
Hopefully, the dedicated fans won't have to wait another five years to hear these two magnificent musicians grace the stage in Milwaukee.
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