A few songs into her October 8 concert at San Francisco's Fillmore, Gillian Welch paused to tell a story. The subject was the crazed, idolatrous comments that fans shout during shows, a few having already been hurled her way that evening. "We were playing in Hollywood and someone yells out, 'Dave! I want to have your baby!'" Strum. "And it was a guy." Visibly enjoying the tale, Dave Rawlings � her partner in music and life, and yes, that guy Ryan Adams has an argument with, concerning Morrissey, at the beginning of Heartbreaker � gave his goofy, guileless grin and remarked, "I missed the whole thing. I have no idea how � I mean, I was right there."
What matters about this story is not its lo-fi charm, nor Welch and Rawlings's easy rapport with their fans, nor even the impossibilities of male childbirth � though most of those things are central to Welch's live show. What matters is Welch's ability to make every story ancient, sublime, worn in and caulked with road dust. The baby comment had been made earlier that week on Welch's current West Coast tour, but in her wry, wistful telling, it already had all the feel of a tour-van classic.
This knack for siphoning out the timeless qualities in the mundane and modern is what has landed Welch in her current spot. She is, first, a valid and adored member of the traditional bluegrass community � one who has memorized that oeuvre, who regularly collaborates with this or that obscure jug band or backwoods mandolinist. But she is also a darling of the alt.country set, which loves her for joining gospel language with stories of, say, losing your virginity during a Steve Miller song.
The blending of bluegrass tradition with tragicomic Gen X angst has come through luminously on nearly everything Welch has recorded, but it makes sense that the stage would be her forte. Live, she can do justice to both ends of her spectrum, juxtaposing old standards with whimsical covers. Considering this, I expected her Fillmore show would be good. I had no idea how good.
Taking the stage without the kindling of an opening act, Welch and Rawlings lit their own flame with a lush take of Revival's "Orphan Girl." They then rollicked their way through a first set loaded with some of her best tracks, from "Elvis Presley Blues" to "I Want to Sing that Rock and Roll." But in case there was any doubt that the fawning, enthused crowd was in their pocket, the pair pulled out their trump card in the eighth song of the night: a cover of Radiohead's "Black Star." Just playing that track would have been enough, but Rawlings and Welch owned it, drawing out each fragile harmony.
That should have been the highlight. It wasn't. In the second set, after holding the spell with, among others, a heartbreaking "Wrecking Ball," a taut "I'll Fly Away," a properly gritty "My First Lover," and a folksy "Open Up the Tired Eyes" (with Rawlings as Neil Young), the duo sprouted a pair of matching mischievous grins. "Toss down that hat," Welch instructed someone in the eaves. "No, the other hat." A gray, Barnaby Street-style top hat was produced, and she donned it carefully. "Now give us some reverb!" We should have seen it coming. We'd all walked by the '60s-era psychedelic posters on the way in. We were all standing under the famed purple chandeliers. In retrospect, it's obvious. But I doubt anyone guessed that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were about to play Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." I'm sure no one guessed they would play it so well, cloaking the legendary hall in that musky old melody. Add drug-addled incantation to the list of sonic traditions Welch handles better than their founders.
Only Gillian could remind us that even Grace Slick deserves a fair shake � and as a musician, not just some cultural artifact. Welch is forever re-animating the lost classic or illustrating the hidden harmonies in a nerdy British rock song. This is a doubly effective game, because giving the bluegrass treatment to other genres also brings us around to the universal qualities of her own songs. Thom Yorke singing "Look at Miss Ohio," anyone?
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