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Two of a kind: David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Photo: John Whipple

Boot-Scootin’ Fun
By Ashley Hahn

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
The Egg, Nov. 11

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are the real deal.

They strode onto the almost bare stage of the Egg last week as if to assume their place in a lost Nashville revue, and performed hand-hewn blues, boot-tappin’ bluegrass, and country waltzes that stem from some sepia-toned era.

But there they were in Technicolor: Welch in a short velvet jacket and satin skirt above her black cowgirl boots, and Rawlings in a suit (and a cowboy hat for the second act).

The duo launched directly into driven versions of two favorites from the last two records: the surprisingly sunny “Wayside/Back in Time” and the quirky “Elvis Presley Blues.”

“We’ve never played in an Egg before,” Welch said, stating that they didn’t expect the building to actually be an egg. “One of the unusual properties of the Egg is that it’s very quiet,” she continued. Part of the unearthly quiet was a rapt audience, but also the room was sorrowfully half-full. But too bad for anyone who missed it. The heartfelt honesty of their songs and the small crowd lent the performance a real intimacy.

Though many of the songs on their newest album, Soul Journey, are with a full band, the arrangements they took on the road left little to be desired.

Welch’s forlorn voice was in fine form, tinged with trademark ache and soft sweetness, particularly when she sang the sparse, traditional “I Had a Real Good Mother & Father” alone. It’s hard to believe she’s superstitious about having vocal training: Her voice is so natural and unaffected that it couldn’t possibly be contrived.

Welch and Rawlings played with their heads down and brows furrowed, listening well to each other and at ease in the spotlight, as though they were rocking their living room and we just happened to be there.

Welch switched from guitar to banjo for several songs, and they both played harmonica in the course of diligently plowing through highlights from the last several albums, including “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll” and a spectacular version of the mournful, bluesy “My Morphine.” The latter, Welch professed, is the slowest yodel as tested by “extensive comparative research.” The song “solidified my place in the slowcore movement,” she joked.

The closer of the first set was a blazing version of “Red Clay Halo,” during which Rawlings pulled out every stop. And during “Revelator,” Rawlings absolutely killed with minor dissonance and passion. In “Look at Miss Ohio,” his solo replicated Welch’s cadence and her every intonation. With Welch, his singing fits hers, creating harmonies that unfurl like silk from a spool. But when he was left alone to sing Dylan’s “Copper Kettle,” he quaked and seemed to struggle.

An early Greek philosopher thought that bodies were parts of the same whole—Gillian Welch and David Rawlings may well be the best evidence of this theory I’ve ever witnessed. They always know where the other is going.

After playing so many songs in a minor key, most people would stop. But nothing kept Welch and Rawlings from rock-a-bye-ing us with a bevy of fun covers. They encored after a standing ovation with note-perfect versions of Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner,” and “I’ll Fly Away,” one of Welch’s contributions to the cash-cow soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou. But when someone behind me yelled “Freebird,” Rawlings thankfully lamented, “I thought that would go away in my lifetime.”

Black Metal Jacket

Cradle of Filth, Moonspell
Saratoga Winners, Nov. 13

England’s Cradle of Filth are the Grand Guignol of heavy metal, and the stage show they unveiled at Saratoga Winners last Thursday pushed them further beyond the Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson comparisons they’ve been tagged with for too many years. For one thing, Cradle are a band, and the show augments the music rather than catering to a cult of personality (and makes Manson’s sicko shtick look positively pubescent in the process). Taking the stage in black garb that resembled a cross between goth wear and medieval armory (complete with breast plates), the symphonic quintet turned the Cohoes roadhouse into the Theater of the Black Metal, employing sensational programming, pulverizing rhythms from a monolithic drum kit, and a zaftig lyric soprano to churn their sonic dramas to a hallucinatory pitch. That the uninitiated couldn’t make out a single lyric only added to the maelstroms of towering—and undoubtedly unwholesome—emotions.

Vocalist Dani Davey’s impish yelp created a laughable effect at first, but a song or two in, it became pleasurably eerie, a top note to his devilkin death roar, which is one of the most sulphurous in metaldom. When the tumultuously sweeping melodies soared into the nether regions, the soprano took over, giving the music a genuine thrust of operatic intensity. The show’s concept, based on their recent Damnation and a Day release (sans the recording’s 50-piece orchestra) was encapsulated by Davey’s observation that there is only one way to come into this world, but many ways to go out. The songs, which flowed from one to the other like turning pages in the Book of the Damned, invoked cycles of birth and death, renewal and decay, mostly through alternating symphonic crescendos with shattering hardcore choruses. It was to the band’s inventive credit that they did not stoop to Satanic imagery, instead cleaving to pure gothicism to drive the mosh pit into a frenzy.

Cradle’s visuals never overwhelmed the overall experience, not even when a woman trapeze artist shimmied up a rope for some aerial acrobatics. The best effect were the two gargoyles (in Hollywood-quality costumes) who lurked in the rafters, engaged in some pagan rite of their own until the grand finale, when they pulled out a couple of machine guns and sprayed the airspace with showers of sparks. This flawlessly conducted set, which used German theater composer Carl Orff rather than Richard Wagner for a template, was wildly creative right down to the lurid blue-and-violet stage lighting, and, in a word, awesome.

Although Moonspell hail from Portugal, they are considered to be important contributors to the Scandinavian black-metal oeuvre, and their atmospheric opening set ably proved why. Drawing mostly from The Antidote, their majestic seventh release, the hulking quartet and their guest programmer spun a hypnotic web of brutal yet beautiful compositions, in which lyrics of haunting poetry occasionally escaped from vocalist Fernando Ribeiro’s gravelly basso profundo. The mesmerizing “Under Lowering Skies” was propelled by a Mediterranean dance rhythm, opening a whole new vista in the genre’s ever-expanding horizons.

—Ann Morrow

Pleasantly Surprised

Belle and Sebastian, Rasputina
Calvin Theatre, Northampton, Mass., Nov. 12

Life is full of surprises. Like a box of chocolates or a federal election, you really never know what you’re gonna get. At nearly every turn during last Wednesday’s show at the Calvin Theatre, I was caught off-guard, from the abundance of Albanians to the $5 plastic cups of chilled merlot. But the quality of the performances really piqued my interest. Scotland’s ambassadors of sulk, Belle and Sebastian, delivered an engaging 100-minute set that, time and again, had me wondering, “Where did that come from?”

By all accounts, past Belle tours have been poorly rehearsed, ramshackle affairs, filled with false starts and missed cues. In fairness, there was one false start this time out, but otherwise the band sounded rehearsed and confident. The intricate arrangements were carried off expertly, often sounding almost exactly like the original recordings, which is no small feat considering the amount of players involved (they’ve taken the form of a seven-piece band with five-piece string section for this tour).

Special mention should be made of guitarist (and sometimes vocalist) Stevie Jackson and his counterpart, Bob Kildea, who traded some surprisingly fiery leads on the Brit-poppy “Stay Loose” and Tigermilk’s “You’re Just a Baby.” The group nailed some of the trickier tempos and stylistic shifts within songs like “Step Into My Office, Baby” (from this year’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress) and “You Made Me Forget My Dreams,” one of several A-side-worthy B-sides represented. Several band members showed their multi-instrumental prowess by switching up between songs, especially Mick Cooke, who followed up a wonderful muted trumpet solo on “Like Dylan in the Movies” (sadly, one of the few offerings from the excellent If You’re Feeling Sinister LP) by taking a turn at the French horn, then conducting the string section through a dramatic ritard.

Another kicker is that this show was genuinely fun. For a guy that terminally sounds as if his dog just died, lead moper Stuart Murdoch seemed to be having a blast, and displayed a sense of humor that is practically undetectable on record. For the bouncy “You Don’t Send Me,” he invited a handful of girls from the audience onstage to dance along, then joined in with them on “Women’s Realm” (wisely, the only selection from the mediocre Fold Your Hands Child, You Look Like a Peasant). I never really thought of Belle and Sebastian as a dance band, but by the time they got around to “Sleep the Clock Around” to close out the evening, the theater was a sea of smiling faces and shaking indie-rock booties.

Rasputina opened the show with a surprisingly rocking set, considering their lineup. Armed with two cellos, a drummer and Melora Creagher’s elastic voice, they cranked out a short set of songs from their latest LP, Cabin Fever, and shredding covers of “Bad Moon Rising” and “Barracuda.”

—John Brodeur

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