Folk stars Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are best known for their brooding songs of murder, lust, longing, and things-gone-poetically-wrong. But a joyful collective “whoop” rose out of the 2,200-seat-strong, sold-out Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium last Friday night, when the pair name-checked Asheville in a lyric from their song “Hard Times.”
In a remarkable coincidence, the night marked the 20th anniversary of Welch and Rawlings’ first album, Revival. And while it was the first time the duo has played the house hall at Brevard Music Center, they’ve enjoyed reciprocal infatuation with Western North Carolina for decades. “I feel understood in NC,” Welch said in an interview with Bold Life in this month’s issue (www.boldlife.com/26472-2/).
On stage, she remarked, “You know how much we love you all” — and the feeling was overwhelmingly mutual, evidenced in the crowd by rapt sing-a-longs, tears, several standing ovations, and demands for an encore that turned into three songs, closed by the soaring bluegrass-gospel traditional “I’ll Fly Away.”
If the pair has an anthem, it is “Time (The Revelator),” the title track of their third album. They broke it out in the show’s second half, never losing their exquisitely spooned harmonies even as the intensity built to Rawlings’ virtuosic coda on his vintage arch-top guitar, a solo that prompted loud cheers from every corner.
Looking downright ghostly in a floor-length prairie dress, her hair gone recently silver, Welch emoted her most personal song, the forlorn, autobiographical “Orphan Girl,” with an eerie resonance. During this number, Rawlings seemed to hold his long-time partner in a protective gaze. They traded affectionate banter about the effect of NC humidity on banjos — Brevard Music Center’s gorgeous summer hall is open to the air on both sides, and the lush foliage from the surrounding mountains pressed in close, like a second-line jazz riff — and of her attempts to “clog” in cowboy boots. “I only know one step,” she said shyly. “But I’m willing to show it off, I guess.”
“Our collaborations with Mountain Song Productions continue to yield successful results, new audiences, and sell-out houses for Brevard Music Center,” notes Cally Jamis Vennare, director of marketing and communications. “Gillian Welch exposed a capacity crowd to [the venue] for an extraordinary night of music under the stars. What a spectacular way to mark the final ‘BMC Presents’ concert of our 80th anniversary season.”