Portland was visited by an amazing creative duo last night in the form of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Their performance at the State Theatre was a riveting testament to how collaboration works and a sustenance to creators of all kinds engaged in the hard work of making authentically original products.
Gillian and Dave have played Portland many times over the years, but they joked about how the places they performed all seemed to close shortly thereafter. The last time they played the State it was in a state of dangerous disrepair, with the balcony all but falling down, and they despaired that they might be killing another beloved Portland venue. So Gillian was clearly pleased to be able to say of the renovated State, "I like what you've done with the place," and declare that their Portland spell has been broken.
Although they maintain that a backstory is not necessary to appreciate art, there is a little bit of a backstory to this tour that illuminates the significance of what we were seeing last night. I go into more detail about it in a recent Forbes.com post (Hard Times: The Creative Teamwork of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings), but the gist is that their latest album, The Harrow and the Harvest, is their first in eight years. That's about the length of time it took them to produce their first four albums, so clearly there was some difficulty.
"Gillian Welch" is a full songwriting and performing partnership between Welch and Rawlings, and apparently for seven of those eight years the songs didn't flow. They kept writing and performing the whole time, but the songs either weren't good enough or didn't feel like part of a larger whole. The quality control on the first four albums was superb and they must have doubted whether they would ever be able to add to the canon again.
Fortunately, working together on Dave's first solo album, Friend of a Friend, followed by a long road trip last winter for Nashville to California broke the writer's block and the new material is every bit as strong as what came before. That's not to say happy. They have referred to the album as "ten kinds of sad," (it only contains ten songs!) and slow and sad is indeed their mode of choice. But you leave each song with a sense that sadness has been explored to its fullest, consumed and laid to rest, and that creates a sense of uplift.
And uplifting, too, is their performance style, intertwined yet restrained, respectful bordering on ecstatic. It's a great example for all creative teams to see how strength can speak to strength, one "plussing" the other (to borrow a term from Walt Disney adopted by Pixar) without either stealing the show. To a Portland audience filled with artists, entrepreneurs and innovators of all sorts it was fuel for the fires of our perseverance. Long may you run.