Gillian Welch with David Rawlings, Hammersmith Apollo

The problem with gig blogging is that unless you do it loads – which to my shame I don’t – each individual post tends to be a laudatory, universally gleeful paean to the act and experience in question. It’s not that I haven’t been to the occasional duff gig – Springsteen in Hyde Park a couple of years ago was a bit of a let down, seeing Ocean Colour Scene twice in a row in the late nineties was a big mistake – it’s just that these days almost by definition if I’m bothering to see someone live I like them a lot.

And so, predictably, Gillian Welch and musical partner Dave Rawlings were wonderful, to my ears anyway. From high in the circle the visual aspect of the show was mildly disorientating: the pair made to look even tinier by being alone in the middle of the Apollo’s vast black stage, standing on a rectangle of cream rug with only mic stands and one or two instruments behind them (the same oriental rug, Gillian tells us, that they stood on for their appearance on Later Live… with Jools Holland the night before). David besuited underneath an impressive Stetson, Gillian all bare arms and legs, cowboy boots and hair.

The sound was remarkably full and expansive given it’s produced by just two voices and four sets of fingers, the digits alternating between guitar and banjo. Gillian’s soaring voice – at once deep and soulful, then reaching heights of sorrowful vulnerability – is perfectly matched by David’s close harmony accompaniment: the two vocals barely distinguishable at times but completely symbiotic.

The duo succeed in creating a genuine sense of intimacy in what is a reasonably soulless cave filled with a couple of thousand people, thanks both to the songs themselves and the patter inbetween – at one point when the banjo needs retuning Gillian gives up, hands it to Dave and says ‘we tune because we care… and because we have no drum kit to hide behind’.

Highlights are many: diving bass slides coupled with dancing top strings intermingling with the can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head melody of Elvis Presley Blues; marvellous mid-solo capo changing during Red Clay Halo (both from the excellent 2001 album Time (The Revelator)); the sad and beautiful Annabelle from debut Revival, featuring one of many virtuoso acoustic guitar solos from Rawlings, rightly drawing a round of applause from the audience.

Here’s the thing though: this was a lovely gig, but I couldn’t help but wondering – with the best will in the world – what it was that had drawn so many people to brave the cold November night. I struggle to believe there are other duos that could’ve put on such a rich and soulful set, full of passion and impressive musicianship. But with just two people playing what are (even with all their adornments) simple songs, the experience – whisper it – wasn’t that different from listening to a recording.

With a band – with more instruments, even – you get greater room for variation: even small departures in tone or timing accumulate to quite a different overall effect each time when multiplied across several players. So with apologies for ending on a mildly philosophical note, why did many hundred souls and I go? Was it because of the human drama of seeing two people accomplish tricky guitar and vocal parts? To enjoy a distinctive communal musical experience? Or simply to say we’ve seen someone who rarely tours (and to blog about it afterwards)?

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