Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Concert review: Gillian Welch at the Civic

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Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch.
Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch.

It's been 12 years since Gillian Welch first appeared in New Zealand and nearly five since there was an album with her name on it.

But last night a spellbinding performance before a packed Civic suggested the reigning Queen of Americana's crown had suffered no slippage in the intervening years.

She and playing partner Dave Rawlings delivered a intimate acoustic epic of a show.

It was one which didn't just offer a fair smattering of the pair's two decades of songwriting - including many a tale of death, despair, orphans, Elvis and DIY dentistry - but plenty to chuckle at in the between-song conversations with the audience.

"You know what they say about Auckland? That you're a banjo-lovin' town," drawled Welch before picking up the instrument a couple of songs in for Rock of Ages.

And it was a show that offered a sideline in interpretative dance too. On the bluegrass stomp of Six White Horses, Welch surrendered her guitar and accompanied Rawlings' banjo with a spot of "hamboning" body-slapping percussion followed by some traditional clogging steps, hoisting her ankle-length dress hem to unleash her cowboy boot heels on the Civic stage.

It added nicely to a show that might have otherwise risked coasting too long in the same minimalist acoustic gear.

But hearing the intricately intertwined voices and playing of Welch and Rawlings was strangely energizing all by itself. Especially when Rawlings, already a busy, beautiful accompanist on guitar throughout, let loose with solos high on his fretboard on the likes of Revelator.

Or when Welch's keening voice vividly evoked the lonely characters inhabiting songs like No One Knows My Name.

There was a loss of momentum with an extended intermission between the two sets.

But the second half regathered quickly with songs like Hard Times (best damn song about a mule you're ever likely to hear) and the Rawlings-sung Sweet Tooth (that aforementioned dental ode) from his own A Friend of a Friend album.

It then steamed along all the way to standing ovation-primed encores including Welch's touchstone Miss Ohio, and the pair's joyous cover of Jackson which shifted the town of the Johnny Cash-June Carter Cash version out into the backwoods.

In upcoming Australian dates, the pair are touring as The Dave Rawlings Machine with an extended band behind them and possibly less emphasis on the Welch songbook.

That we got Gillian Welch - the solo singer-songwriter who's actually a duo - might suggest we got the B option.

Except, that is, Welch and Rawlings were so very magical, all by themselves.

Read more: Our interview with Gillian Welch.

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