5) Revelator – Gillian Welch (solos by David Rawlings)
I love every note that David Rawlings plays. Every clanking, honking, midrangey note. The man’s a genius.
Rawlings is Gillian Welch‘s lead guitarist, harmony singer and husband. The entity that releases records under the name ‘Gillian Welch’ is actually composed of two people: Welch and Rawlings. When singing together, their voices blend seamlessly; when playing guitar, their two approaches mesh perfectly.
Let’s start by talking guitar sounds (always a favourite place to start for me). Welch plays a Gibson J-50 from the 1950s, a spruce-and-mahogany, slope-shouldered dreadnought with the standard upside-down bridge and an enormous pickguard that looks out of proportion to the body. It’s a classic guitar with a classic tone. Rawlings’ choice of instrument is more idiosyncratic: a 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop (mahogany back and sides, spruce top). This is not a typical singer-songwriter guitar. It lacks the depth, the roundedness, the woody bottom end, that you’d look for in guitar were you looking to accompany yourself solo. Archtops are thinner, more pinched-sounding, more brittle and louder. They were a response to a particular problem in the pre-amplication era: how to make the guitar audible in a big band. The answer was to incorporate violin-style construction concepts (an arched top, f-holes) to give the guitar more focus in a narrower range, in effect to make it more banjo-like. Now, I’m not a big fan of the banjo sonically, but I love what Rawlings can do with an archtop in the context of Welch’s songs, how the two guitars blend tonally and how Rawlings expertly weaves in and out of Welch’s vocals
This is the essence of being a soloist who plays with a vocalist: knowing when to play and how much to play without taking the listener’s ear away from the singer. David Rawlings walks this line brilliantly. He’s a busy player; he’s not a restrained or minimalist kind of guy. But he plays tastefully. He knows that while every Gillian Welch gig will have a few dozen idiotic guitar fanboys who just want him to play licks (these are the people who’ve sent the prices of second-hand Epiphone Olympics rocketing in the last ten years, because they can’t think of an original idea for themselves), the majority want to hear Gillian sing songs, and so he plays with that end in mind.
So he knows when to play, but how about what to play? I like how little bits of jazz and rock music make their way into his work, how you can always hear in his playing that rock music is where he comes from. When he toured his David Rawlings Machine record a few years ago, he covered Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer. It comes as no surprise that the guy who began the third solo on Revelator by playing a repeated aggressive, obstinate Eb over an A minor chord is a Neil Young fan. The whole song, coiled and twisted with tension as it is, has been building up to this one outburst, and when Rawling hits it it’s like an explosion. Time (The Revelator) is full of little moments like this. In fact, they crop up in all Welch’s albums. But this tiny little snippet of music, just a few seconds long, is my favourite in Welch and Rawlings’ whole body of work.
David Rawlings – he knows how to rock and roll