I first discovered Emmylou Harris’s music over 11 years ago now, and I’ve been listening to her work pretty consistently since then. Harris is, without a doubt, one of the several artists who are in The Pantheon, for me. What’s so special about Harris’s music, to me, is not only the inventiveness and elegance with which it has blurred and blended genres, from rock and bluegrass to gospel and folk, but also the way it’s served as an entry point into the work of so many other artists. I’ve lost count of the number of musicians I’ve discovered because Harris has sung with them or covered their songs. That collaborative ethos seems an integral part of the richness of Harris’s body-of-work and the way it gestures backwards and forwards in the American roots tradition, forging links, making connections. In addition, the solo albums that Harris has released since 2000 have had an unerring tendency to appear at emotional low points in my life, and I’d credit each of those fine records with helping me through stressful times in one way or another.
The opportunity to see Harris live had passed me by up until now, so it was a particular pleasure to finally see her in concert at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday night, with her current band the Red Dirt Boys. The tone for the show was set early, when Harris, resplendent in knee-length black cowgirl dress and cowboy boots, bounded on to the stage and launched into “Six White Cadillacs,” from her wonderful new album Hard Bargain [review here], the song’s deluxe honky-tonk gaining grit and volume in this live incarnation. The song established Harris and her band’s ethos for the night: to have fun and get loud. Still, a rather inadequate sound mix, coupled with Harris’s notoriously murky diction, conspired to render almost every word she uttered inaudible, and the same applied to the following two songs, “Orphan Girl” and “Red Dirt Girl.” It wasn’t until the fourth song, “Beneath Still Waters,” that Harris could really be heard satisfactorily, and after the slightly shaky start, it was pretty much plain sailing from thereon in.
The excellent, thoughtfully sequenced set-list touched almost all corners of the Harris repertoire, encompassing material old and new, covers and original compositions. The tribal-hymnal qualities brought to the Wrecking Ball/Red Dirt Girl material (“Goin’ Back To Harlan,” “Every Grain of Sand,” “The Pearl,” and “Bang the Drum Slowly”) were especially impressive. But the multi-tasking five-piece band (playing drums, accordion, keyboards, fiddle and electric guitar accompanying Harris’s own array of acoustic guitars) proved equally adept at delivering the more polished, straightforward mid-70s tracks as well. Harris has clearly put together a group capable of covering the polished twang of the Hot Band and the deep soulful atmospherics of Spyboy with equal verve.
Harris alluded to the last time she played in the “fair city” of London at last year’s Kate McGarrigle tribute concert and paid homage to her dear friend and collaborator not with the lovely “Darlin’ Kate” from her new album but rather with a stunning cover of “Talk To Me of Mendocino,” certainly the first time I’ve heard her perform this song. Another tip of the hat to influences led to a simply beautiful Gram Parsons-suite comprising new song “The Road,” “Boulder to Birmingham,” and Parsons’ own “Wheels,” perhaps the highlight of the evening for me. To hear Harris sing a line like “the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive” is at once achingly poignant and wonderfully inspiring now, with the weight of the years, and our awareness of the creative uses she’s made of her survival.
Other highlights at the quieter end of the gig included an intimate “Prayer in Open D” and a surprise outing for the exquisite “Shores of White Sand,” while “Luxury Liner” and “Born to Run” (Paul Kennerley’s, not Bruce Springsteen’s) both rocked spectacularly. At the encore, Harris went for nostalgia, opting for the lovely “One of These Days” and Townes van Zandt’s superb “Pancho & Lefty,” both of which sounded dynamic and fresh. The entire show demonstrated once again the exciting, ever-evolving fusion of rock energy, folk intimacy and country soul that has characterised Harris’s work over the past 40 years. Cosmic American Music, indeed.
Harris was supported by the charming young Greenland singer Simon Lynge, who delivered a compelling set of songs from his record The Future, which is well worth checking out.