As the lights went down for Gillian Welch’s concert at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, a roar could be heard from the crowd across the 101 freeway at the Who’s Hollywood Bowl show. “We’re the quietest show on the road,” Welch deadpanned, the first of what became a running joke, “and they’re the Who. This is a special evening — our first appearance together.” While the unintended juxtaposition was a study in contrasts, it underscored the fact that Welch is arguably the most rock influenced of all the acts that have been associated with the Down From the Mountain/”O Brother, Where Art Thou” axis.
Welch and partner David Rawlings employ “high lonesome” instrumentation and harmonies, but the music takes its cues from folk rock, ending up with a sound that splits the difference between Appalachian hollers and Laurel Canyon. It’s this lack of “authenticity” that keeps Welch from turning into a fusty docent, leading the crowd through a museum tour of yesterday’s “old timey” sounds. Her melodies can have the lilting economy of a Merseybeat ballad, and Rawlings’ solos enter the songs at oblique angles, scruffing up their prettiness, informed by the epic scale and drama of Neil Young.
“Everything Is Free,” from last year’s “Time (the Revelator)” (Acony), turns to Depression era imagery for a tale about her dealings with major labels, and tunes such as “Tear My Stillhouse Down” and “Red Clay Halo” could be from a Coen brothers adaptation of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” But Welch steers clear of the Coens’ smart-alecky chill; she’s nothing if not heartfelt. The genuine emotion expressed spoke volumes; it even managed at times to drown out the hue and cry on the other side of the road.