Soul-searching partners on a trip to Dreamland

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The Hi-Lo Country

Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings

SHEPHERD’S BUSH EMPIRE

Wednesday September 3, 2003

When the heady drug-like spell cast by this captivating show began to fade, it got me thinking. Perhaps the greatest vindication of the music created by the dirt-poor founding fathers (and mothers) of country is the way their influence has reached out across the years and class barriers to a place where, to quote the late, great Sam Phillips, “the soul of man never dies”.

With just their acoustic guitars and the occasional banjo for accompaniment, David and Gillian are stripped down to the core essentials of melody and harmony, loss and wonder, longing and loveliness. They make The White Stripes seem overdressed, but the idea that these former Berklee Academy students are interlopers or revivalists is beneath contempt.

Hank Williams, Ralph Stanley and The Carter Family may have known privation, but the contributions made to the endless river of song by well-heeled lads like Townes, Gram and Kristofferson are just as lasting. Right now the “it’s not where you’re from but where you’re at” principle applies to no one as much as it does to Rawlings and Welch.

They play so softly that early on Gillian asks the photographers to leave the pit because they can hear the shutters better than they can hear themselves. This is indicative of the tender chemistry that binds their voices together as they describe the seductive wantonness of “Look At Miss Ohio” or revel in “Elvis Presley Blues”, which is even more open and allusive than the version they recorded for Time (The Revelator).

Amid their corny asides and bone-dry humour (“Thanks,” said Dave returning to the stage and his mic stand and quieting the rapturous applause for Gillian’s solo spot), it’s obvious this pair have found the key to a timeless, haunted realm. Their songs?for vagabonds of the heart and wounded soul searchers?inhabit an idealised jukebox of the type you might think only accessible in Dreamland.

“Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor” offers prayerful contemplation; “Wrecking Ball” follows a trail of destruction until it becomes a powerful statement of freedom and self-expression. Their “Manic Depression” eerily captures the highs and nagging futility of the condition and makes you think?Welch does Hendrix? I’d buy that. Then Dave’s ornery solo spot on cowboy ballad “Diamond Joe” suggests an album of Rawlings’ campfire classics would be a treat, too.

But signs are that such a parting is a long way off. One of best things they do all night is a new, untitled song that is a miraculous blend of wound-healing and Everlys Dreamland harmonies. Then came the epic finale “I Dream A Highway” in all its gilded wonder. You could see it stretching far beyond this west London night into the nether land of thrilling and foreboding American dreams and nightmares. Awesome.