[The Mail On Sunday, 2004]
Shepherds Bush Empire, London
The Dome, Brighton
AS WITH ANY art form, in popular music many (far too many) are called, but few are chosen. Right now, Gillian Welch, in partnership with David Rawlings, ranks among those outstanding few. And to hear Welch at her best, you need to hear her live.
My benchmark for the country roots revival remains a show I saw Welch deliver in a serene Regency church - the perfect venue for songs so steeped in devotional fervour. As hallowed ground goes, the Shepherds Bush Empire falls a little short; but Welch herself does not.
Pared down to two instruments and two voices - Welch's mezzo soprano is wonderfully expressive and barren of obvious affectation; while Rawlings is that rarity, an acoustic guitar hero - this is music that stands or falls on its essential qualities. It has nowhere to hide.
Contemporary references made in the Appalachian style of the Great Depression could all too easily sound gimmicky. On I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll and Elvis Presley Blues, so beautifully judged is the equilibrium between retrospection and modernity that it sustains the illusion of not having been judged at all.
Welch certainly knows what she is about. She has learned more than banjo-picking from the old-school country circuit - particularly as regards breaking up a sombre set-list with droll patter. Playing to a very different audience, she retains the shtick and shucks the corniness.
By the standards of Welch and Rawlings, the renascent singer songwriter movement is languishing in shallow puddles of solipsism. Even when Welch turns to more personal matters (My First Lover, Revelator), she brings to them the same steady, implacable strength of feeling that fires the backwoods gospel of By The Mark. This may not be the single finest Gillian Welch performance I've ever seen, but it beats the five-button pants off almost anybody else's top form.
“Quirky” is one those words - see also “mellow”, “jazzy”, and “Stereophonics” - which when applied in pop should set alarms ringing, red flags waving and packs of half-starved Saarloos Wolfdogs loosed upon its subject. Frustratingly, it has often been used to describe David Byrne. Numerous sub-Byrne types may warrant that damning epithet, but not Byrne. None of his imitators possesses their hero's scalpel-blade way with a lyric; nor have they approached the entrancing fluency and power of prime Talking Heads.
Byrne effectively decapitated Talking Heads by removing himself from the band in the late 1980s (the body kept on dancing for a while.) The schism was already underway by the 1985 album Little Creatures, the first on which Byrne's particular interests decisively overbalanced the organic unity of the band. Artistically speaking, his subsequent records have at times given him the semblance of a brain in a jar - a creature of pure cerebration.
The stage offers Byrne the opportunity to dispel that impression of bloodlessness, and he seizes it, leaving no doubt that he remains driven by rhythm. I've never before witnessed a stage invasion at the sedate Dome - only a moshpit at Glyndebourne seems less likely.
Always a gifted dilettante and a canny left-field showman, Byrne invigorates solo numbers and mixes them up with Talking Heads classics - starting with I Zimbra, the band's earliest adventure in the spooky, whitewashed Afro-funk that defines their greatest work. Of Once In A Lifetime there isn't much to say, other than that nobody may ever record a better track, and to see Byrne reproduce it with such elan is an uncommon thrill.
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