Gillian Welch Gets By With A Little Help From Her Friend

Singer's intense set included expert guitar and harmony from her bandmate/boyfriend.

NEW YORK -- Singer/songwriter Gillian Welch and her boyfriend, guitarist David Rawlings, make beautiful music together. More to the point, they also play beautiful music together.

That's just what the duo did on Monday at Tramps, in a set that sizzled with personal warmth and collaborative fire. The 30-year-old singer and Rawlings showed off songs from her two mostly acoustic albums, which have earned her a following among fans of bluegrass, country and folk music.

"This next tune is the solitary ray of sunshine on our new record ... and it's very short," Welch said in introducing the hopeful "Winter's Come and Gone," from her recent Hell Among The Yearlings.

Welch is at her best in the pain mode. "My Morphine," a tune utilizing a traditional yodel to convey a struggle with addiction, was breathtaking, as Welch and Rawlings seemed to communicate with each other through the picking and strumming of their acoustic guitars.

On Hell Among The Yearlings' rollicking tale of rape and murder, "Caleb Meyer," the most uptempo song of the night, Welch bent her head down toward her guitar to concentrate as she strummed the rhythm. Rawlings, meanwhile, grimaced while he dug his fingers into his guitar strings and bobbed his head furiously.

Though the duo mostly play unaccompanied in concert, the verve and skill that they bring to their instruments can evoke a full bluegrass band.

While Welch tends to stress sadness and tragedy in her work, she and Rawlings clearly love making music together; they joked, smiled and whispered to each other like school kids between songs. They shared some of their thoughts with the enthusiastic crowd of about 300.

"When we get us some money, we're gonna get a plug-in guitar," Rawlings said after one song.

"Dave and I are always guarding ourselves about getting too slick, too professional," Welch added. "So I took up the banjo. It's working out pretty good." With that, Welch pulled out a banjo and strummed her way into "Rock of Ages."

"Round, round, want to go round, want to see the rock of ages, 'til my body gives out, gonna read the gospel pages," Welch sang. It was one of many songs in the set that dealt with spiritual faith or personal anguish.

Welch delivered a particularly affecting rendition of perhaps her most famous song, "Orphan Girl," from her 1996 debut, Revival. (Emmylou Harris covered the tune on her own classic Wrecking Ball).

"I know no mother, no father, no sister, no brother," Welch sang, as Rawlings harmonized almost inaudibly beside her, their faces contorting in sorrow. The two function so much as a team that it makes one wonder why Welch is the only artist billed, on the album and in concert.

Another question that arises about the Los Angeles-raised Welch concerns authenticity. Can a California girl -- now transplanted to Nashville, Tenn. -- credibly sing American primitive music about life in black dust-towns, as she does on "Miner's Refrain"?

"Isn't that just sort-of musical racism?" 40-year-old concert-goer Mike Saccoliti replied when asked about such criticism. "Just because [Eric] Clapton's not black, does that mean he can't sing the blues? Hell, I play in a roots-rockabilly band!"

Besides, few singers inhabit their songs like Welch does. On Monday, whether she sang about a "Whiskey Girl" (from the latest album) or "Barroom Girls" (a cut from her debut), Welch altered her voice to suit the character.

"We'd find a place in the sunshine, we'd be feeling good," Welch crooned on "Whiskey Girl," effectively expressing the title character's aimlessness. Rawlings, with one strand of hair dangling down his forehead, scrunched up his face as he echoed the lyrics' hopelessness with a high harmony.