Wednesday, August 18, 2004 ... 6:35 PM
Who's the Revelator?
So last night was my seventh chance to watch Gil & Dave save a packed house's worth of folkie fans' souls from the frangible blandness of the post-Joni singer-songwriter tradition -- a tradition well-represented at last night's Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue by the oh-so-blah Patty Griffin, who drew the short straw, apparently, and had to follow Gil & Dave's abbreviated, standard, but awestriking-as-ever set.
Following Dave once he's warmed up is like following Moses. The paths he carves out of music are Red Sea treacherous, and when he is warmed up, David Rawlings stands at the foot of Sinai clutching his little archtop Epi in his arms like the fresh-minted Torah.
Gillian forms storm clouds out of her minor key chord progressions and spooky looming lyrics ("I can't say your name without a crow flying by") -- but it's Dave who brings down the rain and the lightning. Dave has snowballed so much confidence and presence in the years since these two started their career of twang evangelism, you can hear the dynamic shifting between them. Dave's guitar sits louder in the live mix -- or he plays louder than he used to (breaking strings onstage this year for the first time in his decade-long career) -- but either way, when Dave solos, the seesaw creaks.
Having heard it with my own ears seven times now, and a few times more on CD TV DVD, I'm starting to wonder what Gillian's song "Revelator" would sound like without David Rawlings. What has become, in the four years or so that they've been playing it, Gillian's career-defining song has concurrently become David's signature launching pad -- the point in the show at which he ignites, lifts off, and takes everyone with him who can hang on. There is a tension building between the song's two characteristics that I'd bet neither Gil nor Dave would admit to, but which you can fucking feel, if you're listening -- listen to the pure down-strum fury of that last chorus -- and particularly if you follow the song's life -- from the album cut through the DVD to their current near-rote stage act, where the song lies entrenched 3/4 through, the climax of the set.
So listening to it, you think, without Dave, "Revelator" would either yawn open and breathe its own first deep breath as Gillian's song, or it would fray away soggily like a rained-on newspaper.
You get the feeling -- or the hope? in spite of yourself? -- that it might be the former. Because you really do love Gillian. When she plays that solo number up there by her lonesome -- last night it was "One Little Song," and the feeling of it caught in my throat where it spread into a long sigh as she fingerpicked those last notes -- you sort of shake free of the Rawlings fire for a moment and let Gillian's slow bluesy cracked-leather enchantment work on you -- and it's comforting. You identify with Gil, because her genius is disguised as earthy melody and gritty homespun lyricism. She loses power when her songs get too scholastic ("April the 14th Part One") or abstract ("Whiskey Girl"). She is most effective when she works with recognizably colloquial idioms, whether of Bristol ("Acony Bell") or Memphis ("Wayside").
Dave's superhuman virtuosity, meanwhile, blisters on the surface. You can love him for a moment here and there, between numbers, when Gil steps away to tune her banjo, leaves him alone at the mic, and he shies away from the adoringly jeering crowd -- anxiety, sure, you can relate to that -- but the instant his flat-pick strikes that tinderbox, boy, he detaches from you, from the human race, from gravity. He becomes something alien, cocksure and lightning-brilliant. And any sense of sympathy between you and him scatters sparking into the air -- and if you do identify with Gil, then what does that mean?
So what are you getting at, Boney?
Nothing. This is just where my mind wandered last night during Patty Griffin's boring-ass set.
I love these thoughts of yours. They are so true and come closer to expressing the JOY and MARVEL of a Dave + Gil show than anything else I've seen!!!! Thank you for thanking them so eloquently.
Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas
(Novello Festival Press, April 2008)
includes my essay, "Link Wray"
Flop Eared Mule
The Celestial Monochord
Dig and Be Dug in Return
Modern Acoustic Magazine / Blog
The Old, Weird America
Honey, Where You Been So Long?
The Greensboro Review
Fried Chicken and Coffee
Mungo (This was the blog of my friend, the late Cami Park. Miss you, Cami.)
Cat and Girl
Film Freak Central