Charleston Music Hall
There is no other comparable music venue in town where a performer could admonish the audience with, "Let's see how quiet you can be," before singing, barely over a whisper, to 900 enthralled onlookers. That's how Gillian Welch ended her Music Hall performance, stepping to the front of the stage with husband and musical partner David Rawlings to play "the first song they ever sang together," "Long Black Veil."
Even when they were plugged in, the stage set-up was simple and sparse. Before emerging from the curtains, two microphone stands stood ready. Each had a second microphone mounted for the guitars (Welch had two). No cables for the instruments.
The pair walked out with two guitars and a banjo. "We're in a constant state of banjo preparedness," Rawlings assured the audience, after Welch asked if we were a banjo-loving town, to roaring approval. "You have a sister city in Missoula," offered Welch. Rawlings nodded to the recent anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, before singing about it in "Elvis Presley Blues," a song Welch accompanied with an ominous foot tap on her mic stand that replicated the thump of a bass drum.
Welch opened the show with "Scarlet Town," the first track on her newly released The Harrow and the Harvest. "We have a bunch of new songs for you," she promised. The new music came with the precision and stark simplicity as it would have had a century ago. There was no auto-tune here, but simply a fine pair of harmonizing singers.
With plenty of songs that they promised were "guaranteed to bring you down," Welch and Rawlings drew a few standing ovations during the show. Rawlings played a beast of a guitar solo during "Revelator," stretching onto his booted tip-toes with closed eyes to stunned gasps from the audience. When he joined Welch on the second verse of "Hard Times," the addition of harmony and guitar to her banjo and voice filled the room as much as any full-band kicking in could ever muster.
Another highlight came when Welch set down her guitar to clog and dance during the new tune, "Six White Horses." Whatever the song called for, Welch and Rawlings commanded the Music Hall's acoustics with accomplished precision (despite a mysterious, persistent "whistling" from the rafters that Rawlings acknowledged and joked about).
Fittingly, Welch left us with an original murder ballad, the new tune, "Tennessee," before returning for an encore that included, "I'll Fly Away" and the final take on the classic murder ballad "Long Black Veil."
Among the sold-out crowd, at least 50 working musicians from around Charleston were in attendance. Welch's influence is wide, even in rock bands, and the general mood during set break and after the show among these professional players was reverence.
In less than half a year, the Music Hall has now hosted two of the most impressive husband/wife musical duos performing today (Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks played in April). There are few things more perfect in our city than catching a world-class concert a stone's throw from King Street, then walking out into a late summer Charleston night. We've shown that we'll support quality downtown concerts. Let's hope for more.