It’s not often that folk and country are discussed on the pages of Guitar Planet, but 2011 has produced a crop of astounding artists and albums that simply cannot be ignored. Four American heavyweights have set the genre alight and suddenly Americana, folk, country and roots music are all back en vogue.
Sam Beam got things rolling with his fourth studio album Kiss Each Other Clean, released under his Iron & Wine moniker, it had GP critic Evan Dexter cooing “we predicted his songwriting would impact guitarists for years to come. Kiss Each Other Clean just proved us right.”
Things got divisive in March when Josh T. Pearson released the harrowingly bleak confessional LP Last Of The Country Gentleman. The album was incredibly stark, and centred around four lengthy compositions that focused on alcoholic depression, failing relationships and the desire to cheat. For some it was a 10/10 masterpiece that represented a zenith in cathartic outpourings, others, most notably Pitchfork, felt it was an overly long and at times clichéd deluge of overly dramatic imagery. The truth may lie somewhere in between, but the album represented a genuine breakthrough for Pearson who was quickly ushered into the art house fraternity.
No one was taken by surprise in June when Justin Vernon returned under his Bon Iver guise to release the self-titled follow up to 2008’s cult classic For Emma, Ever Ago. The task that lay before him appeared insurmountable: surpassing a endearingly majestic study in isolation and heartbreak that fans the world over had clasped tightly to their hearts. Perhaps bravely, perhaps smartly, Vernon sidestepped expectation forgoing minimal isolation in favour of huge sweeping arrangements and expansive ambition. The result was phenomenal, a deftly produced album that conjured images of desolate expanses, brought to life by a series of daringly layered compositions. While some preferred the intimacy of his debut, few failed to be taken aback by this luscious and confounding masterwork.
Arguably saving the best till last, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings returned after a seven-year leave of absence in late June. The last time these shores had heard from the duo was in 2003, when Soul Journey completed an incredibly trilogy of LPs, anchored by her then breakthrough sophomore effort Time (The Relevator). Then Welch simply changed focus, Dave Rawlings took centre stage, and while his seductively airy LP A Friend Of Mine was well received it ultimately flew under the radar as critics began to audible call for the return Welch.
The world got its wish in 2011, when Welch and Rawlings arrived with the best album of their combined careers. The Harrow & Harvest effortlessly surpassed expectation as an album the saw both artists peaking at the exact same moment. Returning to the acoustic guitar, banjo, vocal formula of Time (The Revelator) this daringly sparse LP contrasted Welch’s flair for depressive subversion with Rawlings’ majestically light playing, presenting both contributors as equal partners without crowding out the wistful emotional core of a fantastically understated album.
The Harrow & Harvest took the UK and Europe by storm with rave reviews quickly leading to a sell-out tour. The performances left fans breathless and sent them scurrying to their laptops and smartphones to spread the word about a tour, which has already become a word of mouth legend. Luckily, Guitar Planet were on hand to witness the final night of their European tour. Could it possibly live up to the hype, let alone the expectation?
The air is thick with sense of anxiety and tension; the venue is filled to the very back row, there are huge queues waiting first outside, and then inside as tonight’s broad church of hipsters, folk stalwarts, Guardian readers, country die hards and distinctly middle aged, middle class socialites shuffle anxiously to their seats. It’s a bizarre scene, everyone, myself included, wanting to get there not just on time, but early, the seats are numbered, the start time well advertised, there is no occasion to rush, but people simply have to be there. As you look around, and as the light dims, the entire Apollo is shimmering awkwardly as a nervous atmosphere pervades.
The wait has been so long (seven years) and the sense of anticipation is so intense, that you can practically see people straining their every sinew as they will Gillian and Dave to produce something truly transcendent. “Scarlet Town”, the rumbling feel good (by Welch standards) opener from The Harrow and The Harvest provides an ideally understated opener. And for a rambling tale of isolation and decline, it certainly serves to sooth and abate a distinctly uncomfortable atmosphere. With preconceived notions of greatness dismissed with an earthy rattle and hum, Welch then takes centre stage for a chilling reading of “Dark Turn Of Mind”.
Seductive and desolate, this winding swooning ballad, subverts the traditional American songbook, as Welch employs the rosy tones of level headed rootsy acceptance to conceal and slowly reveal a lonesome figure detached from warmth of the traditional country aesthetic. It’s quite the opening salvo, and it’s a clear message, there will be charming country thrills, but over the course of the next two hours you’ll be taken deep into the lament laden world of the girl with a “Dark Turn of Mind”.
Split into two sets, the atmosphere is equally parts electric and suffocating. The first set sees mix of ethereal highs and rollickingly frantic fretwork contrasted with a kind of monochrome country. Americana stripped not of its warmth, but it’s colour, this is small town life after night, a fiercely throttled noir world of dirty needles and the extremes of poverty where the Lord’s name is evoked not to celebrate or praise, but as a final defeatist outcry.
Welch’s voices is sublime and Rawlings’ playing intense throughout both “The Way It Goes” and “The Way It Will Be” and the crowd are in two moods, the weighty poignancy of the music has sucked their air out of the room leading to awestruck silences, but Rawlings’ playing is so irrepressible, he crams lightening fast arpeggios into the tiniest of windows, that the crowd cannot help but gutturally react with whoops and hollers. The intensity of the emotional dichotomy within a single composition is astounding, and yet more bewildering is the fact that Welch and Rawlings have managed to reconcile these wildly conflicting emotions into a wholly satisfying end product, that neither cheapens Welch’s sorrow, nor undermines the willful abandon of Rawlings’ playing.
It’s a sensational start, and the second set, now played to a loose, relaxed and thoroughly enthralled audience is practically a victory lap. Gillian is playful and self-effacing and the music is surprisingly celebratory as the near nihilism of the content fails to weigh the set down. “Revalator” is sensational, as its ominous intro gives way to a straight shoot out between Gillian’s soaring vocal and a series of irresistibly intense spiraling acoustic solos complete with tub thumping crescendos backed by the track’s inescapable hook.
The applause is seemingly endless, carrying over into “Look At Miss Ohio”, a rare misfire on an otherwise faultless night, that sees Rawlings attempting to cram so much content into each track, that he doesn’t allow Welch’s vocal sufficient room to linger and brood. It’s a minor quibble though, as his playing is so consistently enticing that you can forgive him for occasionally overdoing it. His redemption is made all the easier by a gorgeously hushed rendition of “I Here Them All”, a rambling ballad by the Dave Rawlings Machine, it’s thoroughly in keeping with the American observationist tradition of the travelling protest song, in the mould of Guthrie, Seeger and Ochs, and naturally enough, the quiet Rawlings explodes (assisted by Welch) into a sublime stomping rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” midstream.
Almost every track played has been rearranged except “Six White Horses” which is dutifully reproduced as Gillian’s simulates the sound of six white horses with a variety of knee slaps and claps and a brief jig across stage. It’s all delightfully disarming and almost noxiously charming, as the duo simple refuse to put a foot wrong. To finish the set Welch settles for a cacophonous reading of “I’ll Fly Away” from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, before, after a receiving a lengthy ovation, they return for a second encore. Loose and ragged they rock through “Whiskey Girl” and a suitably riotous rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Jackson”.
The house lights fail to deter an audience who maintain a third standing ovation and Welch and Rawlings dutifully return to the stage one last time, although they point out that this time they really do have to go, before uncorking an implausibly satisfying up tempo bassless rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”. A fourth standing ovation ensues as a delightfully confounding tour comes to a close.
Poignant, chilling, oppressively bleak and yet somehow warm, boisterous and impossibly amiable, Welch and Rawlings may have just be all things to all people, and this tour, and this show, will live long in the memory. These two awkward country/folk outsiders have staked their very legitimate claim to being the best live act in the world right now, catch them if you can, it might be seven years before you next get the chance.
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