- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2003

How could something so untouchably pure come from Los Angeles? Fans of Gillian Welch, who grew up on the Left Coast with TV-producer parents, probably stopped asking that question a long time ago. Yet it’s still a wonder.

She sings trad-Appalachian folk and bluegrass with such command and beauty, it’s hard to accept that she wasn’t born at the foot of the Carter Family.

Miss Welch and her phenomenally talented guitarist collaborator, David Rawlings, were in town this past summer, warming up for the very popular Norah Jones at Wolf Trap.

The venue proved too cavernous and the audience too inattentive for her music, which demands intimacy and — let it be said — warrants reverence.

A plenty packed 9:30 Club was an ideal setting Tuesday night.

Throughout a pair of roughly one-hour sets, the audience was transported by Miss Welch and Mr. Rawlings to another time and place. Not to the past, necessarily, and not even to the American South.

This was different: a place where the Alfred Brumley gospel classic “I’ll Fly Away,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” all seemed naturally at home together.

As part of the youthgrass vanguard that, through projects such as the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, has helped popularize bluegrass for contemporary audiences, Miss Welch and Mr. Rawlings are at once modern and retro.

Like Nickel Creek, another band of bluegrass progressives, Miss Welch and Mr. Rawlings strive to open the form to new themes and new instrumentation such as — brace yourself — the electric guitar.

The pair’s latest album, “Soul Journey,” surprised listeners by using a rock band on such songs as “Wrecking Ball.” That tune, as well as a few other Welch “rockers,” were performed acoustically Tuesday.

The Welch-Rawlings repertoire is an often mournful affair. Miss Welch remarked that she had been told “I was the only person that can make the banjo sound sad” — no easy task on such a bright and trebly instrument.

She took it as a compliment, thank you very much.

Yet the pair’s music is never depressing or self-indulgent. Take the death ballad — Mr. Rawlings called it a “good killin’ song” — “Caleb Meyer.” It was dark and murderous but somehow uplifting, which maybe is the point of death ballads: to remind one of mortality and thus heighten the urgency of life.

In the olden days, in the hands of, say, the Louvin Brothers, death ballads may have been roundabout calls to repentance. Miss Welch seems to appreciate that.

She’s private about belief, but her songs, all co-written with Mr. Rawlings, are nonetheless imbued with themes of old-time religion.

“By the Mark” is as unabashed a gospel bluegrass number as any written in the last century: “By the mark where the nails have been / By the sign upon his precious skin / I will know my savior when I come to him / By the mark where the nails have been.”

Such religiosity may be a key aspect of Miss Welch’s appeal. The biblical awe and mystery simply make her music matter more.

That isn’t to say she jams high seriousness down her audience’s throat. There were plenty of lighter moments Tuesday, with songs such as “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll” and a winsome cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freight Liner Blues.”

Whatever they were singing about — whether it was painkillers (“My Morphine”) or ragtop-down car rides (“Look at Miss Ohio”) — Miss Welch and Mr. Rawlings delivered vocal harmonies that were as supple and lived-in as your favorite blanket.

Mr. Rawlings, who sported a cowboy hat for the second half of the show, also played frenetic mandolin-style guitar solos that Bill Monroe wouldn’t have sneezed at.

Bluegrass music is a living, breathing, thriving thing.

What else could possibly explain the greatness of Gillian Welch, who grew up window-shopping on Rodeo Drive?

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