Emmylou Harris & the Red Dirt Boys Verizon Wireless Theater June 22, 2011
The song about the Italian painter wasn't in the set, and at the end it seemed like it was the only song not in the set, but watching Emmylou Harris and her Red Dirt Boys paint the curtained-off Verizon Wireless Theater Wednesday night with melodies as old as the hills felt like a private audience with Michaelangelo at the Sistine Chapel. No wonder they call her a Renaissance woman.
Harris sings like she's confiding a great private truth, or like she's leading a prayer meeting. Many times during the evening a great stillness descended on the room, the kind you don't often see outside a religious service. Even without overtly gospel songs like bluegrass rave-up "Get Up John" and mandolin-laced waltz "Green Pastures," the set was so suffused with spiritual imagery it belonged on a higher plane. Are there honky-tonks in heaven?
Some of that imagery, such as Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl," issued from Harris' many disciples, but some of the most stirring ("The Pearl") came from her own pen. One of the few voices who can match Harris' for sheer purity, Lubbock native Kimmie Rhodes, came out late in the set to give some celestial harmonies to Mark Knopfler's lullaby "Love and Happiness" and "Shores of White Sand," a sort of cross between Annie Lennox's Lord of the Rings hymn "Into the West" and the story about the mysteriously disappearing pair of footprints on the beach.
Sipping something out of a Styrofoam cup (hot tea, probably) and sounding like she might be nursing a cold, Harris has the good sense to keep a healthy sense of humor about the gravity of her material. "Kern River," she said, is "my favorite Merle Haggard song... it's so depressingly sad it had to be my favorite." Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You," on the other hand, was equally slow and emotionally plaintive, but "suitable for weddings and parties."
Harris is a storyteller inside her songs and out, instilling civil rights-era Mississippi murder ballad "My Name Is Emmett Till" and homeless diary "Home Sweet Home," both from her new album Hard Bargain, with journalistic detail. "O Evangeline," from 2003's Stumble Into Grace, could be a sequel to the similarly titled song Harris performed with The Band in The Last Waltz - after she watched her riverboat gambler sink into the Mississippi, "the nights were so hard and mean, you shed them like a skin."
Introducing "The Road," a gentle Hard Bargain folk-rocker and "tip of the hat" to her late musical partner Gram Parsons, she said she'd "always had a soft spot for Houston" and reminisced about the night Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt sat in with Parsons and Harris at Liberty Hall. She plugged her former guitarist and "Houston Kid" Rodney Crowell (and his new book) before one of the night's most pleasant surprises, a steely and Cajun-inflected turn through Crowell's stiff-upper-lip tribute to Harris, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues."
That may be true, but cowgirls can chase the blues too. Anchored by Harris' sturdy rhythm strumming on her hefty, high mounted acoustic guitars, the Red Dirt Boys mixed earth-toned instrumental textures like a great watercolor artist might do: Spare acoustic guitar, ominous bass drum and faint keyboard strings on "Emmett Till"; electric and acoustic mandolins, accordion and fiddle on Carter Family Cajun half-hoedown "Hello Stranger" (lotsa Louisiana Wednesday); plinking piano on first-rate honky-tonkers "Wheels" and "Together Again"; etched-glass guitar from Will Kimbrough on "Six White Cadillacs" and "One of These Days"; and "Baba O'Reilly" quicksilver fiddle from Rickie Simpkins on "Luxury Liner."
Priestess, Earth mother, grieving widow, spry roadhouse queen - Harris was all those things Wednesday. She could make you feel God's breath in your ear one minute, and the next, when she let that silver hair down, like she and her Boys were playing to beat the devil himself. A master at work.
Personal Bias: Gosh. I'll have to think about that one.
The Crowd: Older, and quiet as the Cactus Café. Kudos. Except...
Overheard In the Crowd: "Can you hear me?" That's right, the dude next to us was so impressed by Harris' Liberty Hall story he had to share it with a friend immediately. Ever heard of texting?
Random Notebook Dump: Earlier Wednesday, one of Aftermath's writers had the idea for all of us to say which lyric we'd like to put on either our tombstone or our business cards. I'll go with "I've been a long lost soul for a long, long time" from "Luxury Liner."
Six White Cadillacs Orphan Girl Red Dirt Girl Kern River If I Needed You Hello Stranger If I Could Only Win Your Love Pancho & Lefty My Name Is Emmett Till Home Sweet Home The Road O Evangeline Green Pastures Even Cowgirls Get the Blues Get Up John Sin City Tulsa Queen Wheels Luxury Liner Love and Happiness (w/Kimmie Rhodes) The Ship on His Arm Shores of White Sand (w/Kimmie Rhodes) The Pearl Together Again Born To Run
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