Emmylou Harris is one of those artists. She came to my attention first as a backing vocalist years ago & then through her more recent solo work, namely the stunning Wrecking Ball record produced by atmospheric master Danny Lanois.
She has guested on what must now be over hundreds of records, many of those classics. Her ethereal, textured & unique backing vocals, I would often say, make a track. Her vocal passion, depth & originality cannot be matched - on record. She has worked with artists ranging from Patty Griffin, to Neil Young, to Daniel Lanois, to Midnight Oil to Gram Parsons. A few years back she made a stunning record with Mark Knopfler which many including myself, hold in high regard. For those achievements alone & as a backing artist she is rightly considered a legend in the country music scene.
This was the first time I had seen Harris live & I was hugely excited.
Harris walked on stage to an almighty cheer from the crowd. Despite this warmth she started off in shaky fashion. Perhaps it was the first show of the tour? It doesn't seem so. She didn't do credit to her well known recorded version (or Gillian Welch's original version) of Orphan Girl. Part of her vocal charm is her textured & liberal approach to melody but really this was not good vocal form. Her voice felt ropey & to anyone with even a hint of a trained musical ear, she was clearly not close to making many of the higher & lower notes.
As things moved on, Harris clearly felt more comfortable onstage singing her own songs from track 3 onwards. Her band were putting in a fine performance but they lacked a leader despite a stunning effort from her drummer who played with a lovely feel & solid metronomic attention to tempo. Perhaps they were under-rehearsed?
Things stooped a little lower when she admitted to the audience that her fret marker stickers on her guitar neck were missing as she'd had to change guitars due to technical difficulties. This meant she didn't know how to play the upcoming tune & left a very difficult silence for a number of minutes until she worked through the tune onstage prior to performing it. Always a vibe killer.
Later in the show she hit something of a stride especially with some of the newer songs she's written. Performing her own finely crafted tunes was indeed her strength on this night. As a writer she started late in her career but it's obvious a large part of her talent lies in writing & adding that extra sparkle to other artist's performances. There's something to be said for some artists having either a live or a studio voice.
I'd say that some are born to be lead singers & others are born to remain a support to those lead singers. Unfortunately to my mind Harris belongs in the latter category & although the entire crowd seemed to go wild for the performance, the show lacked direction & vibe.
The show very clearly tapped into the nostalgia revival going on these days with the likes of reunion tours & 3rd time reissues of classic records judging by the age group of the audience in attendance.
It's worth saying that the majority of the audience seemed to go wild for the show calling for an encore from Harris & her band The Red Dirt Boys. Unfortunately for this reviewer I seem to have been at a different gig from the one the audience around me were attending.
I will perhaps be shot down for writing an honest review of this show, but Emmylou, we expected better. I'm really grateful to have seen this legend in concert but for me I'll always enjoy her tweaked & produced records & backing vocal appearances far more than seeing her in concert as a lead artist.
I'd say her new record with some class production will be a stunner though. 'Hard Bargain' (produced by the wonderfully talented Jay Joyce) is available now from Harris' Official Website & you can listen to the album for free on Groove Shark here (listening to selections now it sounds pretty special).
Review by James Cooper.
Photo by Ronnie Norton.