Emmylou Harris, London Hammersmith Apollo, 14th September 2008
It’s taken me a while to get round to writing up my thoughts on my first Emmylou Harris concert experience, so I hope my recollections are not too hazy and distant. With this and last month’s disappointing Stevie Wonder concert, I’m left with very few living legends to see in concert, which hopefully means I’ll be able to restrict myself to reasonably priced gigs from now on.
There has been a lot of debate among Emmylou obsessives about the merits of this latest touring ensemble, The Red Dirt Boys, and her superb previous band Spyboy. It’s certainly true that this band doesn’t attempt to mimic Spyboy’s mysterious swampy grooves, neither do they benefit from a singular talent quite as striking as Buddy Miller. My girlfriend commented perceptively on the limitations of the drum arrangements – the influence of rhythms from around the world, presumably imposed on Emmylou’s music by Daniel Lanois and Malcolm Burn, is now largely absent. It’s arguably appropriate though, given the more tasteful, rootsy nature of Emmylou’s latest album (‘All I Intended To Be’), that The Red Dirt Boys are a group well grounded in the American folk tradition. The strongest link in the band is Rickie Simpkins, who plays a bewildering variety of instruments including mandolin, fiddle and banjo. He’s also a more than competent vocalist, providing strongly supportive harmonies and a memorable duet on ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’. The whole group are tasteful, sensitive players who complement Emmylou’s haunting voice, an instrument not just undiminished in its powers, but still developing.
Perhaps most interestingly of all, they play subtly redefined versions of the songs post-‘Wrecking Ball’. These versions go some way toward emphasising the continuity throughout her career rather than presenting that album schematically as a radical seismic shift. Yes, the new emphasis on production values found a new context for her voice – but these songs, including her own, have strong ties with the country tradition. As a result, the show coheres superbly, with Appalachian balladry, bluegrass stomp and, as Emmylou herself admits, a healthy dose of the blues.
It is surely the latter ingredient that is the most significant in her potent mix. Whether she’s drawing something from her own experience or interpreting the work of her most admired writers, there is always an aching sadness and poignancy at the core of her delivery. She admits that she had to exaggerate for ‘Red Dirt Girl’ as her childhood was never quite so painful but claims that the selected Merle Haggard’s beautiful ‘Kern River’ because it’s ‘just so unbearably sad’. After performing a distinctive reading of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’ (sharper and starker than the original), she quotes Townes’ view that ‘there are only two types of music – zip-a-dee-doo-da and the blues’. Unsurprisingly, she promises more of the latter.
It’s become a cliché to say this about the great interpreters – but Emmylou does indeed make every song her own. Even the Gram Parsons songs, which must come with weighty, personal memories for her, are imbued with fresh vigour. She does ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’ and ‘Wheels’ tonight, two of his most memorable songs, inverting them so that her harmony lines become the lead voice. This initially makes them sound unfamiliar and strange, but by the final verse of each, she has such total command that the original melody begins to sound weaker.
The most striking revelation of the night turns out to be Emmylou’s skill as a guitarist. Anyone expecting her to strum politely throughout would no doubt have left impressed by her graceful finger picking, particularly on a moving version of ‘Bang The Drum Slowly’. I found myself wondering whether this rendition of the song might have been even more effective had it been completely solo. The interjection of swirling synth pads during the choruses did seem a little obvious – a touch of emotional manipulation where evidently none was required.
Two further reservations – in not playing ‘Michelangelo’ or ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ she arguably omits her two finest self-penned songs. The show opening ‘Here I Am’ acts as the sole selection from ‘Stumble Into Grace’, which seems a shame given the rich seam of material that album might provide. This is of course a mere quibble given the show’s near two-hour running time. A more significant obstacle is the amount of reverb added to her voice – it’s a strong enough instrument not to need it, and the effect is to obscure her enunciation so some of the words become lost. With her great emphasis on story songs and personal narratives, the words are often as important as the melodies.
Still, for a woman who claims not to be religious, she sounds fervent and almost evangelical tonight. There’s a strong gospel power to the show’s final stretch, with a striking unaccompanied vocal harmony version of ‘Bright Morning Stars’ and a joyous and rousing ‘Get Up John!’. This starts to make the spiritual strain of her more recent material (especially ‘The Pearl’) begin to make more sense.
It’s also impossible to review an Emmylou performance without mentioning just how wonderful she looks, her angelic facial beauty well preserved and her stunning white hair seeming to flow seamlessly into a radiant white dress. It’s good to see she can still wear cowboy boots too.