Friday’s concert at the Folly Theater was an exercise in simplicity.
The stage was set sparingly: two microphones, two guitars, a banjo, a table and a throw rug. On that stage, for about two hours (plus an intermission), Gillian Welch and David Rawlings delivered to a crowd of more than 1,000 nearly two dozen hymns, dirges and ballads, all cast in various shades of folk and country blues.
Welch and Rawlings have performed together since the early 1990s, and it shows on stage, where their easy rapport and warm personae embellish their vintage sound and complement their extraordinary harmonies.
They opened with “Wayside/Back in Time,” a track from Welch’s “Soul Journey” album, a forlorn love ballad that, like many of her songs, harkens back to another era. Then, two days before the anniversary of his death, they sang “Elvis Presley Blues,” a tribute to “a country boy” who “shook it like a midnight rambler.”
Rawlings is a guitarist with a unique sound and phrasing, and they were on display in nearly every song. He’s a flatpicker who can be fast and flashy when he wants to but who mostly favors leads and fills that are brief and on-point, cast in melodic narratives that service the song.
On a few songs, Welch played that banjo, which was finicky all night. Before “Hard Times,” as she worked on its tuning, someone in the crowd suggested she not bother because banjos don’t sound tuned even when they are.
A cover of Doc Watson’s “Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor” included Rawlings’ most dazzling guitar work. They also performed “Sweet Tooth,” a track from “A Friend of a Friend,” the inaugural David Rawlings Machine record. Other highlights: “The Way It Will Be,” which includes some thoughtful chord progressions, and “Red Clay Halo.”
Welch introduced several songs with brief stories about their origins, like “My First Lover,” which, she noted, became part of the soundtrack to a horror movie with an ax murder. Before “Down Along the Dixie Line,” she confessed that many of her songs have mules in them. After “Time (the Revelator),” she noted the presence of a mule in its lyrics. “Once you notice one, they’re all over the place,” she deadpanned.
She also praised the Folly Theater, speculating that her father, an entertainer toward the end of the vaudeville era, probably performed there.
This was a seated show, but the audience expressed plenty of enthusiasm throughout, especially during “Six White Horses,” when Welch, with Rawlings accompanying her on banjo and blues harp, hiked up her dress, revealing her cowboy boots, and stomped out a dance.
They ended the post-intermission set with one of Welch’s loveliest songs, “Look at Miss Ohio,” a song about delaying commitment and responsibility for some free-wheeling fun. They returned for a four-song encore that included a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which they’d performed at the Newport Folk Festival to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his infamous electric set, and “Caleb Meyer,” a murder ballad from Welch’s debut album.
They followed that with “I’ll Fly Away,” a gospel song made famous on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. It was supposed to be the closer, but the audience was having none of that. Welch and Rawlings submitted to the rousing ovation, giving the crowd one more: a version of “Long Black Veil” performed away from the microphones into the pin-drop silence of the theater. Their harmonies were spine-tingling.
It was the perfect ending to an evening dedicated to the primal and transforming power of two voices and a song.
Wayside/Back in Time; Elvis Presley Blues; My First Lover; The Way It Will Be; The Way It Goes; Sing That Rock ’n’ Roll; Dear Someone; Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor; Tennessee; Red Clay Halo. Intermission. No One Knows My Name; Hard Times; Down Along the Dixie Line; Time (the Revelator); Six White Horses; Sweet Tooth; Annabelle; Look at Miss Ohio. Encore: Mr. Tambourine Man; Caleb Meyer; I’ll Fly Away; Long Black Veil.