Gillian Welch has always presented a problem for those who value “authenticity” above all else in pop music (a fool’s errand, to be sure). With her partner David Rawlings, she writes songs that, in their instrumentation and hushed, uninflected delivery sound like lost field recordings, although close listens uncover their distinct folk-rock leanings. She also looked as though she stepped out of “The Grapes of Wrath,” a dust bowl dolly in handmade clothes. Evidently, even the plainest dress can turn into a straightjacket, and at the Roxy Thursday night (the second of three gigs in the Los Angeles area warming up for her opening slot for Norah Jones this summer), she stepped onstage looking perfectly contemporary in a lived-in leather jacket over a black top. Her new album “Soul Journey” (Acony) also steps closer to the 21st century than before, utilizing a full band.
The live shows are still just Welch and Rawlings, but the changes are unmistakable. The title character of the luminous “Look at Miss Ohio,” which opened the first of two sets, is recognizable from hundreds of pop songs, a feckless beauty riding in a convertible who “wants to do right, but not right now.” The gorgeous slow burn of “Wayside/Back in Time” finds them moving from the harmonies of A.P and Mama Maybelle Carter to the Mamas and the Papas, sung over a glacially craggy Neil Young-style riff. Even traditional music gets reworked: The bluegrass murder ballad “Silver Dagger” is transformed into an ominous narrative (“We love killing songs,” Welch joked).
What hasn’t changed is the wispy beauty of Welch’s voice and her delicate instrumental interplay with Rawlings. Whether playing with his capo high up on the guitar neck, sounding like a tightly strung autoharp or dulcimer, or low down for a more “traditional” guitar sound, his solos gracefully mix old and new in often astonishing ways.
Welch plays the Beacon Theater in New York June 23-26, opening up for Norah Jones.