It's coming on Christmas, and no doubt the shelves are stocked with deluxe this, complete box set that; but Gillian Welch's Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg is something different.
At times it almost feels like you're listening to a collection compiled for the Smithsonian, yet that's not right either, because Boots is hardly field recordings. It contains outtakes, demos and, in one case, an early morning live radio broadcast. It's a direct line to the early-mid '90s in Nashville that feels like it, in turn, had a direct line to the '30s (and '40s, and '50s, and '60s …). It contains the raw materials from which Welch and David Rawlings, along with producer T Bone Burnett, would go on to create Revival, the duo's seminal American gothic debut album that we know and love so well, and that set the stage for so much subsequent Americana.
The earliest song on this new double album is an "Orphan Girl" home demo, recorded in January, 1993 after Welch had been in Nashville only about six months, Rawlings one month less. It's the exact four-track tape that got the song covered by Tim and Mollie O'Brien and Emmylou Harris.
But the bulk of this collection is outtakes and alternate versions (and alternate mixes) from the Revival sessions in the summer of 1995. What's incredible is the quality of the recordings that ended up on the cutting room floor in the process of making Revival. Boots' more rough and intimate look behind the duo's evolution and process is in its way no less compulsively listenable than the cohesive Revival itself, which would introduce Welch and Rawlings to the world sounding basically fully formed.
To give a sense of what was at play here: Rawlings had just lucked upon the realization that he could get a great sound out of an archtop guitar after he arrived in Hollywood for the sessions; and Welch and Rawlings were still solidifying the duo partnership (as songwriters as well as performers) that would inform their entire career. Some of the songs were still being finished ("Only One and Only") and some were a big part of their live set but wouldn't make the album ("Wichita"). Some, like the bawdy talky blues "Georgia Road," were recorded and apparently never played again.
On Boots, you get both a taste of the early duo versions of songs that would appear with a band on the album; and also of Welch and Rawlings' goofier, more hepped-up side, especially with T Bone and the band, on songs like the Johnny Cash-inspired "Dry Town" and "455 Rocket," where T Bone moves from hand claps to maracas to a very rock'n'roll piano solo. When Welch and Rawlings plug in for "Pass You By" it's surprisingly bluesy and loud. Early Welch and Rawlings turn out to be more eclectic, bar-broken, and for lack of better word, country, than I realized — Boots kind of busts Gillian Welch's reputation of being unshakeably solemn.
That said, the reason Welch and Rawlings came out the other end of this with "a sound" is that that sound works best for them; I'd listen to the tracks that are just the two of them any day, from "Annabelle" to "Go on Downtown" (a wonderful Robert Earl Keen cover that didn't make the record, simply because they decided to go with all originals) to "By the Mark," with Rawlings' beautiful counter-melody harmony. Same with "One More Dollar," "Barroom Girls" and "Red Clay Halo."
On Boots, you get to hear a duo that are still figuring it out (an early version of "Tear My Stillhouse Down" is perhaps most dramatically different, and you'll hear Welch sing on Boots in ways you probably never have before), yet at the same time are already holding those magic ingredients — the close harmonies and fluid, improvised guitar parts, the stellar songwriting — that make them so instantly recognizable, even after all these years. (Acony)