“It’s not the most chipper record; If you think it starts out bad, just wait,” said Gillian Welch, addressing a full house at the Orpheum in downtown L.A. that had come to hear a full run-through of her 2011 album, “The Harrow and the Harvest.” Presumably, those in attendance already knew just how harrowing it could get. A few songs in, Welch turned to partner David Rawlings. “This is a sad little number. Did you know this record was this much of a bummer?” she asked. Then, upon further reflection: “Actually, side B gets a little sunnier.”
Welch doesn’t really play bluegrass music, per se, but she leans in to the great bluegrass tradition of using gallows humor between tunes in concert to make light of some material that can get fairly gallows-serious. “This is kind of a sweet little double suicide number,” she announced, right before the duo got to the celebrated album’s penultimate song, “Silver Dagger.”
There was no need to cross over to the sunny side of the street for this audience, which couldn’t have been more riled up if it was an arena audience waiting for Bruce Springsteen to race through the entirety of “The River.” “The Harrow and the Harvest” is an odd album to be celebrating in this fashion, and not just because it’s melancholy: It was a chart blip, it’s too old to be fresh, and it’s too new for Welch to be commemorating any neat round-number anniversary. So what’s the real occasion for a concert that brought in 2,000 excited Angelinos? The recent release of a first-time LP release of the record, which has the homemade care in packaging and attention to audiophile issues fans Welch’s fans have come to expect. Not many artists could or would base a successful national tour on the fandom’s appreciation for artisanal vinyl.
The line at the merch table indicated some Welch buffs might have come to the show primarily to buy the new/old record, actually. Indie stores sold out of the first “Harrow” pressing quickly, and Amazon has had it on back order since before it came out in late July. Welch told the crowd how they’d completed an additional pressing right before this west coast swing, and when the shipment had been held up at a receiving center in San Bernardino that afternoon, crew members drove out to personally retrieve the boxes. All this so everyone could share in the glory of acoustic guitars in glorious start-to-finish analog.
This minor mania may sound ridiculous to the folkie-phobic, or to the turntable-revival holdouts among us. But there are good reasons why Welch cultists want to savor every waveform of “Harrow and the Harvest” — which did pick up a Grammy nomination for best engineered album (non-classical), as well as best folk recording. One was plainly on view at the Orpheum: Rawlings might be the most captivating acoustic guitar soloist alive. Any rock crowd that imagines acoustic duo music couldn’t possibly be exciting would only need a few songs’ worth of schooling in his live string-bending, which sometimes plays it straight with the conventional beauty of string-band improv, and sometimes veers more into rock or even odd jazz progressions for a few bars. It’s fun to watch him contort in place as he stands on the tips of his pointy boots, as if he had ants in his pants that could only be released through the dexterity of his picking.
But for all that virtuosity, Welch’s songs (co-written by Rawlings) remain the main attraction. You could hear a big difference between the newer songs that made up “The Harrow and the Harvest” in the first set and some of the older ones that the two of them revived after intermission. When Welch started recording in the mid-‘90s, she was much more obviously a strict roots revivalist — outraging some of her authenticity-questioning critics, who were aghast that the gal who opened her debut album with “Orphan Girl” was not, in fact, an orphan girl. “Caleb Mayer,” the number from her sophomore album that ended the second set, is a rousingly raucous murder ballad… but a murder ballad all the same, and those are a dime a dozen, even now. (Well, okay, maybe not in downtown L.A. movie palaces.)
Since those early albums, an artist who was once accused of being overly derivative of old-timey music has revealed herself to be one of Americana’s most original artists. The sounds on stage may take the rough form of some sort of folk/bluegrass combo. But at its core the music of “The Harrow and the Harvest” really doesn’t sound like anybody else at all, though you still hear echoes of everyone from Doc Watson to Neil Young in the music. You sure won’t hear those entrancing chord progressions anywhere else on the roots circuit, and the lyricism is a strange combination of extremely detailed and utterly mysterious. “Silver Dagger” may be close to a murder ballad, but probably most in the Orpheum audience were learning it was a double-suicide song for the first time, from her song info.
That’s not to say Wednesday’s show didn’t have easily fathomable pleasures, too. These showed up in the multiple encores in the form of covers, of “I’ll Fly Away” and the Johnny Cash/June Carter standard “Jackson.” Even the featured album’s mortality lament “Six White Horses” became good fun as Welch played percussion by expertly slapping her thighs, and then did an extra drum solo, of sorts, by walking to the front of the stage and dancing loudly in her boots. (Mystery of the seemingly random stage floor mic solved.)
There was no Tom Petty cover, as a few attendees might have secretly hoped, but Welch did say, “That’s for Tom Petty” after singing the wonderful “Elvis Presley Blues,” presumably because he was such a notorious Elvis fanatic.
“Thanks to anyone who’s come to see us at stand-up places and rock clubs. This is a nice joint,” she said toward the end, admiring the ornate surroundings. The happy unlikelihood of music this off the beaten track having found such a significant and passionate cult was reinforced as they added one final encore, “Everything is Free,” written all too prophetically at the beginning of the Napster era, addressing the now common 21st century dilemma for musicians of whether to play for pennies or pack it in and keep their gifts to themselves
It’s to Welch’s and Rawlings’ credit and then some (he returns in March, headlining his own show at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, with Welch backing) that they’ve found a way to thrive, even as the situation they prophesied in “Everything is Free” has only gotten more dire for others who don’t have legendary live chops and a sideline in designer vinyl to fall back on.
For all their nods to the present, you still got the sense during the show that these two have time-traveled intact from some former, better, indeterminate decade, whether it was the ‘30s or the ‘60s. You also knew the audience couldn’t be happier to have been born at the right time to enjoy a couple of master performers born in the wrong time.