Last Night: Gillian Welch & David Rawlings At Wortham Center

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Gillian Welch & David Rawlings Lillie and Roy Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center June 6, 2012

Gillian Welch's songs have a pretty high body count. Not everyone may notice because the music is gorgeous, well-crafted and sturdy, but the songs themselves are told by a disproportionate amount of corpses. Hello, Mr. Reaper. Call it "on my way to glory" if you must, you're still dead.

That applies to "Tear My Stillhouse Down," "Scarlet Town," "Six White Horses," and a number of the other songs Welch and partner Dave Rawlings played Wednesday night at the Wortham Center's Cullen Theater. The peculiarity of a plain-spoken Americana duo from Nashville performing at a venue usually used for the loftier performing arts was not lost on Rawlings.

Earlier, he told the crowd, he had gone to take a break from rehearsal and returned to what must have been the Brown Theater, where Houston Ballet's Romeo and Juliet starts this evening.

"All of a sudden there's this castle onstage," he said. "I didn't really know the facility."

Welch and Rawlings have a few of card tricks that elevate their music above its morbid, dour subject matter. One is the dry sense of humor they both have -- "I feel like that's the most up-tempo songs we've ever played in a row," Welch said after "I Want to Play That Rock and Roll" midway through the first set brought the grand total to two -- and another is her dulcet alto, which can infuse a feeling of joy (though quiet joy) to a song like "Wayside/Back In Time," which is about a woman wishing to turn back the clock and reunite with a lover. Her voice is just cured the right way, smoky and wan but never bitter or thin.

The folks in her songs are laborers and wanderers, mule drivers ("Hard Times") and wayward girls ("Look at Miss Ohio"). There is very little money in the songs, sometimes very little hope, just a lot of sweat and a stubborn faith. Her more spiritually-driven material has an eye on the hereafter, the kind of salvation where relief is its own reward. The way she sings is almost like a journalist: Welch tells these people's stories without overly identifying with them or passing judgement.

The other reason is I could listen to them both all night long was Rawlings' flabbergasting guitar skills. Somehow he can spin complicated arpeggios around a fast-moving foundation of chords, a tapestry of madrigals, ragtime and bluegrass. He really wrings the notes out of his guitar, and his ear for harmony should be etched into stained glass. He can really shred.

Not for nothing did they pay tribute (with "Make Me Down a Pallet On Your Floor") to the late Appalachian guitar master and tourmate Doc Watson, who passed away late last month. Welch told the crowd that Watson, who was blind, used to walk right up close on Rawlings' guitar and ask, "What kind of instrument is that?"

It was a wonderful evening, fully enjoyed by an appreciative crowd quick to applaud one of Rawlings' finger-twisting solos and laugh at Welch's jokes, like the one she borrowed from Townes Van Zandt about the snail saying "Wheeee!!!" while riding on the turtle's back.

Indeed, toward the end of the second set, she said, "This is the most fun we've had in Texas without Guy Clark."

It showed.

Personal Bias: I caught myself singing along to "I'll Fly Away." I adore this music. It's twisted and dark and glorious.

The Crowd: A KPFT crowd: Thirties to fifties, middle/creative-class, khakis, collared shirts, boots, beards. Solid female presence (same age range), but a good night for a man-date.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Emma would have loved it."

Random Notebook Dump: Wortham Center has the smallest wineglasses I've ever seen. Would you like a shot of chardonnay?

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