Though neither Gillian Welch nor Dave Rawlings come from Santa Barbara, Thursday night’s concert at the Lobero Theatre felt something like a homecoming. “You are a banjo-loving town,” said Welch, who has played here with Rawlings numerous times before (and will play again when the Dave Rawlings Machine rolls into town on Sunday, October 18). The intimate night felt familiar, like a time shared between old friends and family. It was, in fact, Welch’s birthday, adding to the sense of communion.
As musical duos go, Welch and Rawlings make for a rare pair: so inextricably melded were their vocal and guitar harmonies that, with eyes closed, you could mistake them for one organism. Rawlings’ distinctive guitar style is impressive for its manner of expressive restraint, the way he can climb birdsong-like up and down a scale without the slightest hint of wankery or showmanship. His notes were melodic and rhythmic complements, adding the last minimal details to Welch’s picture, resplendent even in its sparseness.
The show also felt like a homecoming thanks to their performance of some old favorites, like “Orphan Girl,” from Welch’s first album, Revival (released almost two decades ago), “Revelator,” and “Rock of Ages.” “Tennessee,” from her most recent album The Harrow and the Harvest, was especially beautiful and hypnotic. It was a night of lullabies, to be sure, restful and trance-like with a more than a hint of melancholy. “This is a more upbeat one. Lower body count,” joked Welch as the two prepped for a song.
As Welch clopped and clapped on her knees on “Six White Horses,” the perfection of the Lobero as a venue for the duo was made all the more apparent, its sheltering space amplifying the intimacy. When the two ended with a second encore, playing “Long Black Veil,” written half a century ago, they forewent the microphones and sang in the half-lit air. In doing so they invited a sense of ancient musical time and spiritual sacrament. Un-electrified, unamplified, and undiluted, all of us wrapped yarn-like round the soothing spell of guitar and song. Cradled as we were, it felt like going home.