The Newport Folk Festival was never strictly limited to folk music, but the 2008 festival expanded the musical diversity of the festival more than ever before. Perhaps taking a cue from the massive success of younger festivals like Bonnaroo, the 2008 Festival included bigger ticket artists like The Black Crowes, Jimmy Buffett, The Levon Helm Band, Trey Anastasio and The Cowboy Junkies, right along with the folk, bluegrass and blues troubadours that once topped the bill. Despite some weather issues, this approach turned out to be a resounding success and all of the headlining acts turned in memorable performances that often conveyed the influence of the traditional styles that originally launched the festival.
One of the most ubiquitous presences on the final day of the 2008 Festival was the duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings who, over the course of the previous twelve years, had established themselves as two of the most talented songwriters on Nashville's alternative country and Americana roots scene. The duo not only performed a memorable set of their own, but also contributed their talents to several other sets as the day progressed, including joining The Levon Helm Band (also available at Wolfgang's) and Jimmy Buffett on the Newport Festival stage. Drawing on a diverse range of influences, from traditional folk, country and bluegrass to more modern rock influences as wide-ranging as Neil Young, The Velvet Underground and Camper Van Beethoven, Welch and Rawlings' original songs convey a deep appreciation for the raw, primitive traditional forms of the past with a contemporary awareness unlike most of their peers. Like the traditional forms that fuel much of their music, the duo's songs always tell a story, often focusing on the desperation of struggling outcasts trying to cope with loneliness, despair and death.
Performing within an economical framework of just two instruments and two voices, the duo conveys an honesty and emotional tension that rarely ever veers from straightforward simplicity. For their set at the 2008 Newport Festival, Welch primarily plays rhythm guitar on her 1956 Gibson J-50, while Rawlings plays strikingly inventive leads on his tiny archtop 1935 Epiphone Olympic. The set begins with the free rambling "Look At Miss Ohio," a key track from Welch's 4th album, Soul Journey. Despite Rawlings hitting the stage with an out-of-tune guitar, this is a fine opener that conveys a relaxed confidence and features plenty of the lovely flatpicking he is known for. After Welch acknowledges the beautiful surroundings of the festival site, the duo next conveys the feelings of envy toward musicians who play a more popular form of music with "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll," an upbeat example of their seemingly effortless ability at perfect two-part harmonies.
Slowing things down, a new song surfaces next in the form of "Lawman," with Welch exploring the desperation of knowing her fugitive lover's days are numbered. With its chorus of "Lawman gonna kill my honey dead," these despairing sentiments are complimented by Rawlings' agile lead work that cuts right through without ever being flashy. This sense of economy in the arrangement is a key to keeping the emotional level strong. With Welch switching to banjo for a couple of numbers, a song from the highly acclaimed Time (The Revelator) album comes next, with "My First Lover." With a lyric that conveys the emptiness of a failed first relationship ("I only remember calling it quits") and its name check of Steve Miller and his song "Quicksilver Girl," this a reminder that these musicians actually grew up on music of the 1970s and 1980s. With Welch adding harmonica to the mix and still strumming banjo, another song from Soul Journey follows with a fine reading of "No One Knows My Name."
One of the highlights of the set is next as Welch and Rawlings deliver impeccable harmonies and beautiful guitar playing on "The Way It Will Be." An unrecorded song from the Soul Journey era, fans of the duo would have to wait another three years before this heart-wrenching ballad would finally see an official release, surfacing on 2011's The Harrow And The Harvest, where it would justifiably be recognized as one of their most exceptional songs. Despite containing bleak lyrics that convey the pain of an un-repairable relationship and a downbeat hazy feel that recalls Neil Young's "On The Beach," this song is undeniably catchy and features some of Rawlings' most sensitive playing.
Another unreleased song (still unreleased at present) follows in the form of "Gamblin' Man," a laid back country blues, which makes the hot-picking bluegrass style of the rousing "Red Clay Halo" that follows all the more exciting by contrast. Yet another unreleased fan favorite (also still unreleased) follows in the form of "Knuckleball Catcher." On this performance, Welch apparently satisfies an urge to add harmonica for the first time ever. It begins with a false start as Rawlings is in the wrong key but, following a quick capo adjustment, they deliver an engaging performance about former Red Sox catcher Doug Mirabelli, who was kept on the roster solely to catch for knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield. Having recently been let go, Mirabelli's predicament serves as an analogy for Welch herself, who despite the limited scope of traditional folk music, does it better than anyone else.
The remainder of the set is a tour-de-force, beginning with a showcase for David Rawlings, who Welch informs the Newport audience is a local boy, born and raised in Rhode Island. With an emphasis on Rawlings, but with the trademark tight harmonies very much intact, they next play "Sweet Tooth." This song surfaced on the A Friend Of A Friend album, released under the moniker "Dave Rawling's Machine," which prominently included Welch and several members of Old Crow Medicine Show. Drawing on Appalachian folk music, "Sweet Tooth" is both humorous and endearing and is one of the most immediately infectious numbers of this set. This is followed by "Orphan Girl," one of the most striking tracks from Welch's 1996 debut album. A prime example of Welch and Rawlings utilizing traditional forms, Welch's vocal has such a natural unaffected sincerity that one cannot deny that her quiet desperation is real.
Winding the set to a close, Welch and Rawlings deliver two choice covers that are sure to delight all listeners as much as they delighted the Newport audience. The first, an arrangement of Paul Simon's "Gone At Last" also utilizes a traditional form, here arranged not unlike the bluegrass standard, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken." However, it's the encore that may indeed be the most intriguing, if not the most fun song of the set, as Welch and Rawlings tackle one of the all time greatest duets in country music, "Jackson," originally immortalized by Johnny Cash and June Carter. This is a remarkable conclusion to the set that is a far cry from the low key approach taken on so many of their songs. Here their voices soar and they thoroughly capture the swagger of the original. More dynamic than everything that preceded it, this is a unique example of the duo really letting go and having a boatload of fun in the process.
Those already enamored with Welch and Rawlings' work will find much to enjoy here. For those less familiar, this recording provides many fine examples of the natural grace and unaffected sincerity of their vocal harmonies and a refreshing lack of showboating on their instruments. Above all else, their 2008 Newport Folk Festival performance conveys an unvarnished honesty that is penetrating, refreshing and startlingly beautiful.
-Written by Alan Bershaw