Gillian Welch | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Gillian Welch


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Gillian Welch takes inspiration for her story lines from the tumbledown crossroads towns of rural America, and inhabits their characters with genuine commitment; her ingenuous, countrified drawl makes her sound like one of folk music's mythological back-porch savants. But Welch's latest album, Time (The Revelator)--released on Acony, her own new label--also bears a decidedly contemporary stamp. Though the tunes are crafted with the straightforwardness of the pre-countrypolitan southern heritage she's adopted, her 1970s California childhood makes its presence felt in their romantic pop-folk hooks and sudden dissolves into minor-key mystery. Her lyrics veer from traditionalist tropes--she references songs by Son House and Blind Willie Johnson, among others--to splashes of Dylan-esque surrealism. And the combination of her deft picking and the fervid lead work of her longtime accompanist and harmony singer, David Rawlings, is tense and unsettling: the odd intervals they create often sound a single fret from discord, a taste she might've picked up while studying at Boston's Berklee College of Music. Pop-influenced song frameworks and folk textures don't always hang together well, but here Welch's lyric artistry provides a stable center of gravity. She imbues the jubilant hoedown cadence of "Red Clay Halo" with a fragile sadness, telling the story of a hardworking country girl who looks toward the day when she'll pass through the pearly gates with "a red clay robe and red clay wings and a red clay halo for my head." In "Elvis Presley Blues" she links the King to folk hero John Henry, portraying them both as driven men, consumed by callings that set them at odds with their times. And "I Dream a Highway" is a 14-minute-plus imagistic collage, the kind of high-art risk few acoustic musicians since Tim Buckley have dared to take. Despite the startling leaps and rococo twists and turns of Welch's imagination ("I think I'll move down into Memphis / And thank the hatchet man who forked my tongue"), she never slips into self-indulgence--the song is a stunning accomplishment, and the unforced, low-key way she and Rawlings deliver it only intensifies its impact. Sunday, August 12, 7 PM, Park West, 322 W. Armitage; 773-728-6000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Patrick Salisbury.

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