Aug 25, 2016
Tuesday’s show was bound to sell out because Berklee forces arrived with a couple hundred students, faculty and alumni and because their very distinguished alums Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings asked if their performance and award presentation could be nested in a special Roots show. That means a lot to us, and both parties pulled out the stops to create one of the finest and most meaningful shows we’ve ever put on.
Liz Longley has a song with a chorus that starts “You’ve got that way…” and wow, so does she. Armed with an acoustic guitar and her cool, smoky and nimble voice, she took the stage for our first set. The songs have become hits for me from repeated listening to her debut album. “Memphis” and “Bad Habit” are new soul folk standards. “Skin And Bones” has a darker Appalachian edge. Then it was on to a very different voice in Sierra Hull, with her musically entwined new string trio and songs from her fascinating new Weighted Mind album. After the title track we heard the baroque and intricate composed interplay of “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea” (thank you Berklee training) and the silk pillow of a song that is “Lullaby.”
We were only one song into Maureen Murphy’s set when Photographer Tony whispered to me that we were experiencing the finest singer in the show’s history. There’s a case to be made. I’ve rarely seen so much refinement and technique mingled with so much power and passion. Murphy delivered four very different songs with a rocking, versatile quartet, but the capstone was her ode to her singing idol Lisa Fisher “How Can I Ease The Pain.” The song’s free form gave Maureen ample ways to shape and craft and massage and emote. It was simply breathtaking in its range of textures, from delicate to forceful. And she got to hit a classic money note in Martin Sexton’s “Smoke.” It would have been difficult to pack more musical range or magic into 20 minutes.
I’ve been watching Gillian and Dave perform for twenty years, and it’s always riveting. Certainly, seeing the MCR logo behind them was extra inspiring and gratifying. They opened with spectral unison singing on “The Way It Will Be,” making the harmonies of “The Way It Goes” and “Miss Ohio” all the more bloom-like. When Berklee President Roger Brown presented the school’s American Master Awards to them (as individuals by the way not a group), he cited Dave’s harmonically rich and inventive guitar playing. And yes, that’s one thing I’ve always loved about it – close, dissonant intervals delivered with bebop command and a staccato attack, like Bill Monroe downstrokes on Eddie Lang’s guitar. And on this night I got to be about 20 feet from his shredding solo on “Red Clay Halo,” one of my favorite Gill and Dave songs. Their final number “Everything Is Free” includes the line “we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay,” and that’s how GW and DR always sounded to me. Their old friend T Bone Burnett, who collected the night’s other Master Award, played amiable electric guitar strokes and sang a bit on that final tune before adding a whole new verse about a certain orange presidential candidate in the rollicking Nashville Jam on “I’ll Fly Away.”