Being an American, I have trouble imagining music without America. After all, what subject matter has proved so fruitful to so many folklorists, rockers, rappers, and other musical romancers of this great and sprawling land mass? Are there not more songs written about the American experience than about the lived experience of any other nationality? You don’t exactly see Canadians like Neil Young (who plays here at the Bowl next week) and Joni Mitchell running to Russia to become honorary lyric laureates of their new homeland. Historians and the aliens who discover our ashes will no doubt note what a powerful influence the idea of America had on the lyrics of all rebels, vagabonds, and dreamers worldwide. And like many things American, time has proved what an incredible shelf life the idea of America has.
Indeed, time’s a revelator, sings Gillian Welch, who plays tonight at the Lobero Theatre with her great guitarist, David Rawlings. While time reveals some things to be false, it also preserves those things that are enduringly true. In that way, Welch and Rawlings can make music that gets called, time and time again, “timeless.” Though contemporary in time and place, the pair continues to win accolades for the way they reimagine music styles from olden times. The duo plays to the time-tested tune of Americana folklore, in which Welch sings of the famines and harvests of the heart, the seasons of sorrow that sweep across its temperamental plains.
She sings also of American history. Abraham Lincoln and Elvis Presley are both subject matters, as are the nameless folk of rural and rugged times gone by: coal miners’ daughters, barroom girls, morphine addicts. So classic are their tunes that just this month, the Americana Music Association awarded Welch and Rawlings a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting.
Meanwhile, down at the Funzone, an up-and-coming young voice from Arizona delivers her take on American themes. R.Ariel, recently named by music mastermind Brian Eno as one of his favorite new artists for the “elusive serenity” of her minimalist pop compositions, plays the same night as Welch. Given that R.Ariel will have just released her new book, In North America, this musical patriot can’t help but feel a certain cosmic coincidence in the dueling gigs.
In North America is a stream-of-consciousness recounting of her recent trans-American and Canadian tours spent in a 1990 Oldsmobile “always on the verge of breaking down.” In the book, she writes of her experiences on our continent’s highways, as well as her experiences growing up poor in Phoenix. “What poverty does is create a very odd sense of displacement and isolation and a lot of ostracizing feelings of not belonging,” she said in a phone interview. Playing the DIY circuit poses some real struggles for the “essentially homeless” R.Ariel, as the often-meager compensations fail to cover gas expenses.
But music, she says, “is the glue that holds people together,” and a lack of resources has forced her into new creative realms. Working with few instruments, R.Ariel creates inventive mood music with haunting guitar and her spellbinding voice. Her newest album, This World, promises a lonely dreaminess.
Indeed, if there’s another natural resource our country may lay a claim on, it is the boundless solitude that springs from our open landscapes. On those empty roads, the sparse music of R.Ariel, like the sparse music of Gillian Welch, would be a great accompaniment.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings play the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) at 8 p.m. Tickets are $41. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com. R.Ariel plays the Funzone (226 S. Milpas St.) with One Hundred Paces, Forrest Conifer, and Exiter. Tickets are $5. Call (805) 962-6666 or visit sbdiy.org.