Sure, San Francisco's Golden Gate Park hosted some of the biggest names in bluegrass this past weekend, on six different stages for three days straight. But I was lucky enough to catch Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings last Thursday at the Fillmore before all that madness began.
It's always a toss-up whether music with such reverence for subtlety will get drowned out by a drunken crowd in a standing-only venue like this one. But the country-folk pair cut right through any misgivings their audience might have had about the music being too soft or too twangy; at times they were both, and the crowd went crazy for them. The pair played a handful of Welch favorites, including "Red Clay Halo" and "Revelator," and with voices intertwined, so accustomed to one another's intonations, their harmonies sounded more like one voice than two.
At the end of the first set, they absolutely nailed "Caleb Meyer," the fast-paced opening track of Welch's 2001 Hell Among The Yearlings. And among the show's most exciting moments might have been the sneak preview of Rawlings' debut solo album, which is to be released this fall. One song told a raucous and steadily escalating story about a trouble-causing sweet tooth, which coaxed the crowd into full-on clapping and heel-stomping. At one point, the audience erupted in cheers at the sound of a single, perfectly-placed note from Rawlings' guitar. You know something's going well when a singular note can evoke such a crashing response.
They came back twice for encores, ending with the folk traditional "Long Black Veil" and a jaunty rendition of "I'll Fly Away," on which the singing along of the audience just about drowned out Welch and Rawlings.
The duo's old-timeyness has been knocked for inauthenticity, since Welch hails from Los Angeles and the two met in Boston. But if their goal is to make you feel a lot more vital, then they're the most successful team I've seen in a while. Near the end of the show, they let loose on "I'm Going to Jackson," famously sung by country legends Johnny Cash and June Carter, and that somehow made it clear they weren't trying to be anything they aren't. They were just having a really good time.