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(Above: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform a devastating cover of Radiohead’s “Black Star.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

The stage was adorned simply: two microphones, a pair of guitars, a banjo and a small black table set against a black curtained backdrop. In many ways it looked like the set-up for a radio show. The large banner advertising flour, soap flakes, a healing elixir or some other bygone product of American industry was implied.

For just over two hours on Sunday night, folk musicians Gillian Welch and David Rawlings delivered a spellbinding set to a near capacity Liberty Hall. The pair has been recording together for 15 years, but its music stretches back much further, back to the days of Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family and even Stephen Foster.

Rawlings provided the texture and coloring to Welch’s songs of isolation, desperate hearts, outcasts and murder. He coaxed many impressive solos out of his antique f-hole guitar, particularly on “Down Along the Dixie Line” and “Revelator,” the pair’s signature tune. The subject matter may have been bleak, but Welch’s  haunting voice and memorable storytelling, coupled with the duo’s understated but impressive arrangements made the material a joy to absorb.

They are touring behind their first album in eight years, “The Harrow and the Harvest.” All but one of the album’s songs found their way into the setlist, along with a handful of tracks from their four previous albums and a few surprising covers.

A well-schooled audience burst into applause at the opening notes of most songs, but then quickly quieted down to listen to every note. During the banjo-led songs “Rock of Ages” and “Six White Horses” the crowd stomped along so enthusiastically, the floor bounced along with it. Reverence was also broken when fans sang along with “Elvis Presley Blues.” David Rawlings’ side trip into Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” briefly turned into a hootenanny.

It might be tempting to write off Welch and Rawlings as a museum act, but the vitality and vibrancy of their performance make them impossible to dismiss. Their choice of covers was also shows pair refuses to be sealed in an antique vacuum. The set-closing cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” found Rawlings framing the song with Spanish flamenco flourishes.

A spellbinding reading of Radiohead’s “Black Star” – complete with a delicate introduction that showcased a conversation between guitars – was the evening’s best moment. The duo opened with “Orphan Girl,” the song Emmylou Harris recorded before Welch had a record deal to announce her talent.

Setlist: Orphan Girl; Scarlet Town; The Way It Will Be; The Way It Goes; Rock Of Ages; Wayside/Back In Time; I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll; Black Star (Radiohead cover); Dark Turn of Mind; Dusty Boxcar Wall (Eric Andersen cover). Intermission. Hard Times; Down Along the Dixie Line; Elvis Presley Blues; Six White Horses; Look At Miss Ohio; I Hear Them All > This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie cover); Tennessee; Caleb Meyer. Encore 1: Revelator. Encore 2: The Way The Whole Thing Ends; White Rabbits (Jefferson Airplane cover).

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