Gillian Welch: Musical Instrument Musueum, Phoenix, AZ 6/2/12

“I had no idea this place was so swanky, I pictured a glorified hippie guitar shop,” joked Gillian Welch a few songs into her show with musical partner David Rawlings at the two year-old Musical Instrument Museum (MIMM) in Phoenix, AZ. It’s no stuffy Waldorf Astoria; rather. it’s a family and date-friendly 300-seat theater.  With exceptional acoustics, the venue at MIMM served as a fitting setting for an acoustic Americana duo, particularly one favored by the NPR crowd.  It was also the type of performance where you can actually shout something out to the performers and possibly get an answer –.  “What’s in the box?”  and “did you check out the museum” were a few of the shout-outs from the attendees, but contained little to no answers from the duo.

Although the performance was billed as ”Gillian Welch,” it’s clearly a team effort here as David Rawlings is an essential part to their creative process, and a prominent musical partner on stage.  By flat-picking his 1935 Epiphone Olympic guitar, Rawlings, with a cowboy hat tilted down to shadow most of his face, evokes an addictive flavor of dissonance that fuels tenderness and rawness.  He also balances intensely visceral fervor with restraint, providing the songs with plenty of passion but without ever disrupting their delicacy. 

The duo are touring behind Welch’s fifth studio album, 2011’s The Harrow and the Harvest, which marks her first offering in eight years (Soul Journey was released in 2003). The new record features some of Welch’s most pristine and evocative compositions to date. From the mysterious blues of “Scarlet Town” to the stirring, soul-moving melodic folk of “Dark Turn of Mind,” followed by the goosebump-inducing one-two punch of “The Way It Will Be” and “Tennessee,” Welch and Rawlings had the crowd to the point of awe and silence that is so rare in the day of cell phone rings and text messaging.

“My banjo and my hair are freaked out from the weather,” joked Welch midway through the first of two sets. Despite the heat, the duo thrived in the small room. With only a bottle of water to quench her thirst in the dry air, Welch sung every note pitch-perfect in her seductive twang. “Six Wide Horses” also saw Welch do some clogging and body clapping, while Rawlings strapped on a harmonica and banjo as they brought out their best hillbilly side. Fan favorite “Revelator” was once again performed with the same amount of immediacy and gracefulness that helped launch Welch into the upper echelon of Americana artists, reminding the audience why she and Rawlings remain such a critical force in the industry.

Oddly enough, however, while the show was billed as “sold out,” many seats were left empty, causing Gillian to comment that “this is one of the funniest looking sold out shows I’ve seen.” It turns out that the MIMM has a large donor and season ticket holder base, which restricts certain access to general audience buyers. It was disheartening to see such an imbalance in venue capacity, because Welch and Rawlings could have easily filled those empty seats with deserving fans.

Although a concert at a musical instrument museum might lead one to think the performers would be trying out a variety of new and obscure instruments during their show, that wasn’t the case with Welch and Rawlings. In fact, there wasn’t even a lick of electric guitar on their harrowing take on Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” which concluded the performance. Instead, they relied on the starkness and simplicity of their acoustic guitars and Rawlings’ harmonica, but even so they didn’t require anything else to weave their magic. An intimate performance like this one already feels special, but the two brought a real soulfulness and gravity to the space, marking this as a memorable and vital performance in the museum’s early history, and yet another in Welch and Rawlings’ long history in playing together.

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