Gillian Welch

Boots No 1: The Official Revival Bootleg

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When Gillian Welch released her debut album, Revival, in 1996, plenty of listeners and critics were taken aback by her strikingly accomplished re-creation of the sound and mindset of country music of the '20s and '30s, as if she'd miraculously stepped out of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music into Nashville in the late 20th century. It soon became common knowledge that Welch was born in New York City and had attended the Berklee School of Music, leading many to question the sincerity of the artist and the validity of the work. Twenty years later, Welch has released Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg, a collection of outtakes, demos, and alternate versions committed to tape before or during the making of Revival. The front cover of Boots No. 1 features a photo from the same sitting that produced Revival's cover art, except this time Welch is holding an electric guitar. The shot is a subtle but cheeky reminder of what should have been the point all along: Gillian Welch wasn't a savant but an artist, one who drew clear inspiration from the sounds of America's past, but used them as a starting point to tell powerful and eloquent stories of her own. And while Welch could pass for the lost member of the Carter Family when she saw fit, Boots No. 1 reveals there are plenty of other directions she could have taken that would have been just as compelling and just as valid. Most of the tracks here follow the essential template of Revival -- Welch and her constant collaborator David Rawlings blending their vocals and guitars with minimal accompaniment, sometimes in glorious mono. But the ragged but right rock & roll of "455 Rocket," the sinewy midnight groove of "Pass You By," and the evocative Patsy Cline-isms of "Paper Wings" (which appears in two versions, one featuring ethereal pedal steel work from John R. Hughey) testify to Welch's versatility, as well as her unerring skill as a singer and tunesmith. And while Welch had plenty of gifted accompanists on board (no surprise with T-Bone Burnett producing the sessions), you'd be hard-pressed to name two people who are as musically simpatico as Welch and Rawlings, and his graceful, lively guitar work is a joy to behold here. Boots No. 1 plays less like an expansion of Revival than a document of a fertile period of creativity in the life of Gillian Welch, and while fans of the original album will revel in it, you don't have to be familiar with it to be dazzled by the subtle passion, intelligence, and eloquence of this music.

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