Gillian Welch at MN Zoo, 7/7/14

Gillian Welch at MN Zoo, 7/7/14
Photo by Youa Vang

Gillian Welch MN Zoo Amphitheater, Apple Valley Monday, July 7, 2014

As the wind howled and the trees bent to the ground, Mother Nature did her damnedest to keep Gillian Welch's Minnesota Zoo show from happening, but she eventually relented. With only about an hour delay, Welch and her longtime collaborator David Rawlings were able to take the stage to a perfect summer evening. Even a rainbow was spotted as the clouds parted.

The stage set was sparse with just two mics, two guitars, and a banjo -- but as it happened, it was all that was needed. The music that filled the open air last night was flooded with stunning harmonies and haunting lyrics that carried to the airplanes passing overhead.

Gillian Welch at MN Zoo, 7/7/14
Photo by Youa Vang

Welch and Rawlings were welcomed to the stage by applause and cheers from an anticipatory audience that wouldn't need winning over. She opened up with "Orphan Girl," which had her pulling the notes like taffy from high to low in quick succession. Welch's songs are honest and authentic folk/country narratives, and have a connection to the past that very few musicians are able to duplicate. Rawlings's transcendent guitar skills will leave you spellbound and open-mouthed from trying to keep up with his breakneck fingerings. Even more amazing than this playing was his control when harmonizing -- perfectly holding back his voice to complement rather than dominate the pieces.

Welch's songs are often steeped in religious undertones, and pieces like "Rock of Ages" and "Time (The Revelator)" were carried out from the versions the audience was accustomed to from the recordings and recast into something far more rocking and spirited. There was rushing momentum that swept the crowd up in a tide of noise and music. Others, like fan favorite "Red Clay Halo" and "Hard Times," resonated against the backdrop and allowed Welch and Rawlings to bring these tracks to another level.

The night was split into two sets, with shadows deepening as the night passed. While insects danced under the lights, the bats came out to feed, and often swooped in as the melodies were laid out.

Their version of "Six White Horses" brought out a hambone solo and tap dancing by Welch, and they switched roles for "I Hear Them All/This Land Is Your Land" with Rawlings taking the lead vocals and creating a campfire sing-along for the Woody Guthrie cover that was worked into the piece. The audience ate that up.

For the most part, Welch's songs hit upon sadness, oftentimes touching on poor childhoods and not having enough or telling of heartache from lost love. But it's within the notes and Dave's flawless fretwork where the danger really lives. It's like thunder and lightning, you can barely keep up with his fingers as he plays to the time it hits your ears. The crowd loved every bent string and frenetic acoustic solo.  

Gillian Welch at MN Zoo, 7/7/14
Photo by Youa Vang

As an adieu, Welch shared, "You've all been so great tonight, so we're going to end the evening with a song about killing," drawing some guffaws from the crowd before segueing into "Caleb Meyer." The two were heralded back onstage by a standing ovation and hollers, leading to Rawlings sharing a story of when the duo played with Janis Ian. Ian counted out the seconds after they had left the stage, and almost shoved them back, saying, "After nine seconds, you know they're calling for an encore. Any more than that, you're just milking it," and that is how knowledge is passed down.

Now that they know about encores, they ended with two, covering the Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash duet "Jackson," and coming back for their second encore with the traditional hymn "I'll Fly Away." They used the audience as their backing choir for the echoing chorus that is often sung at Sunday morning church that talks about death and the finality of leaving your troubles behind, but felt perfectly at home -- and perhaps the birds felt the same sentiment -- in the theater that houses the MN Zoo bird show. Critic's bias: Gillian Welch's voice carries the heartache of someone who has lived a hundred lives and never quite achieved happiness. She puts forward the notion that to be human is to suffer, but in a way so that we know it's okay. In short, she's an amazing storyteller.

The crowd: Older white folks in search of mountain music.

Overheard in the crowd: "Is her name pronounced 'Jillian' or 'Gill-ian?'"

Random notebook dump: David Rawlings can be actor John Corbett's doppelganger. Setlist

Set One Orphan Girl Scarlet Town Rock of Ages My First Lover The Way It Will Be The Way It Goes Wayside/Back in Time Elvis Presley Blues Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor Red Clay Halo Set Two Hard Times Down Along the Dixie Line Annabelle Six White Horses Revelator I Hear Them All/This Land Is Your Land Tennessee Caleb Meyer

Encore Look at Miss Ohio Jackson

Second encore I'll Fly Away

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