Folk singer Gillian Welch let eight years go by between the release of her new album “The Harrow and the Harvest” and its predecessor. The long interval was the product of writer’s block, and not a plague of locusts. But Welch’s songs, even the happy ones, are so pocked with longing you’d imagine anything that slowed their gestation to be Biblical in scope.
Fresh from a set at the Newport Folk Festival last weekend, where she earned a hero’s sunburn (she told us) shielding 92-year-old folk icon Pete Seeger from ultraviolet rays, Welch and longtime collaborator David Rawlings brought their Bindle full of melancholy Americana to the cool, acoustically pristine chamber of Music Hall at Strathmore Tuesday night, performing two glorious sets that came to 21 songs and about 105 minutes of music all-in.
Eight of the new songs found homes in the program among classics like “Orphan Girl” (a Welch original that only seems like a standard because Emmylou Harris recorded it first) and a Flamenco-inflected cover of Jefferson Airplane’s Vietnam-era head-trip “White Rabbit” that did exactly what covers are supposed to do — recontextualize the song, not to mention the singers.
The Strathmore tends to keep everyone on their best behavior — the place was so quiet that when Rawlings reached into the curious little head-sized chest of drawers he carried on and offstage with him for a guitar pick, you could hear the rollers slide open and shut. That atmosphere was all the better to appreciate his precise but never clinical picking, which do-si-doed around Welch’s more brutal guitar and, on numbers like “Hard Times,” banjo.
Welch strayed from her setlist to indulge a request for “Keys to the Kingdom,” a highlight, as was the evening’s sole solo-Rawlings composition, “Sweet Tooth.” “I’ll Fly Away,” the Dust Bowl hymn Welch repurposed for the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack, soared, but was no more sublime than the new stuff.
Clearly those new tunes were worth the wait. And anyway, what’s eight years? Welch’s work has always felt ancient and inevitable, mournful and lived. Who was the great American songwriter who wrote, “time’s a revelator?” Oh, right: It was Gillian Welch.