Two former collaborators reconnect to release a critically lauded album and, after a subsequent live tour of the US, they are now touring Europe. Louder Than War’s Ray Burke caught the Dublin leg of the tour.
Gram Parsons was the man who plucked Emmylou Harris from obscurity and taught the devout folkie a love of country music. His early demise helped see that unique and important collaboration become the stuff of legend, but the partnership she would establish with a slightly younger singer songwriter named Rodney Crowell after would become nearly as important. He would become her new songwriting and duet partner and also a member of her “Hot Band” facilitating her solo journey after Gram. They would collaborate for several years, until they both went their separate ways, sporadically guesting on each other’s albums, always promising to someday reestablish their partnership. That was realised in March of this year with the release of ‘Old Yellow Moon‘, their first collaborative work in decades, since their first venture almost forty years ago. They bring their live show to Dublin tonight.
“This place is very posh isn’t it”, said Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian when they played the Grand Canal Theatre (now the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre) a few years ago, and even though venues with a little “character” are a favourite, a gig here in these plush surroundings always feels like an occasion. The repeated calls to take our seats prior to show time ensures eager anticipation in the moments before the two heavy weights of country take to the stage with their band.
On stage they both exude an effortless cool, the cowboy hat wearing Rodney Crowell dapper in dark attire and the silver haired Emmylou Harris timelessly and gracefully beautiful.
The ghosts of old friends are scattered across tonight’s song choices, notably on opener ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’, a well known Gram Parsons and Emmylou duet. Tonight Emmylou leads with Rodney taking up backing vocal duties. That’s followed by another Gram number ‘Wheels,’ they play four in total.
The first half is a subdued selection of songs from both artists’ repertoires, including the first song Emmylou ever heard Rodney sing ‘Till I gain Control Again’. These are scattered among some thoughtful covers. Of those friends who’ve past, a sparse version of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is one of the many tracks revisited tonight from Emmylou’s ‘Luxury Liner’. We are later treated to a 2nd Townes number, a sombre version of ‘If I needed you’, a song she recorded with Don Williams, and later Townes himself. Another friend, the songwriter and artist Rosanna Clark recently lost her fight to cancer, “one of the great smokers of this world”, that the loss is still very fresh for the two is expressed in voice. Emmylou first recorded her ‘”I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’ on the aforementioned ‘Luxury Liner’, and tonight’s passionate rendition is one of the highlight’s of the 1st part of the show.
Other highlights are Emmylou’s ‘Red Dirt Girl’, the first song of the night where she really stretches those fantastic vocal cords reminding us why she is the go to girl from everybody from Bob Dylan to Ryan Adams, and Neil Young to Conor Orbest. The band shuffle along like an express train on a rollicking version of ‘Luxury Liner’ which brings the first half to an energetic and lively close.
After the interval two stools are placed on the stage, and the light suggests something more intimate. Emmylou returns and sits for a tribute to the late Kate McGarrigle, she’s generous in her praise for the audiences reaction to mention of Kate, as she appreciates, and is thankful she does not have to explain who Kate is to an Irish crowd. Emmylou’s sentimental ‘Darlin’ Kate’ is even more moving in tonight’s setting than it is on record, it’s an emotive and provoking rendition that heralds a better engagement with material, which was lacking slightly in the first part of the show. With our attention solely on Emmylou and her thoughtful words for the underrated songwriter, the loss of her close friend is devastatingly apparent. Rodney returns after for a tender version of the Louvin Brother’s ‘The Angels Rejoiced last night’, a song also recorded by Emmylou and Gram.
The 2nd half as a whole is far more engaging affair; that their friendship has endured is evident in the mutual admiration and respect for each other’s work. This is evident in the praise Emmylou bestows on Rodney for his song writing ability and a highlight is a beautiful rendition of recent foray ‘Long Time Girl Gone By’ from his last studio record. So new is it, despite guesting on the album, Emmylou has yet to commit it to memory and sings from a sheet. The two sing in complete harmony with each other, as if they had been doing it continuously for the last 40 years. The band joins the on stage for some quiet back up on ‘I know love is all I need before a “swathe” of material from the recent ‘Old Yellow Moon’.
‘Hanging up my heart’ kicks off the album, and tonight is the first in a generous dollop of tracks from the album. Prior to Roger Miller’s ‘Invitation to the Blues’ Crowell jests about Emmylou’s reputation as the “cowgirl with a broken heart”, to which she retorts in mock defiance “I work hard to keep that image”. Live the songs sound upbeat, and it’s a perfect opportunity for them to showcase their impressive backing band. Jedd Hughes has been adding atmospheric and incendiary guitar sounds all night, and really lets lose in the latter half, Steve Fishnel’s pedal steel styling’s have also added an authentic layer to tonight’s proceedings.
The acknowledgment of Kate and Rosanna goes away to acknowledge some over looked female songwriter, and if Rosanna Clark was Lee Krasner to husband Guy Clark’s Jackson Pollock, then the same can be said, and is, by Emmylou of Patti Scialfi (or Mrs Springsteen). Their rousing version of her ‘Spanish Dancer’ showcases what a fine song writer that other New Jersey native is.
Anecdotes are littered throughout, introducing ‘Bluebird Wine’ Emmylou recalls hearing Rodney sing his composition on a demo cassette tape back in 1974, and how she would later include it on her first post Gram album, Pieces of Sky. They revisit it on the new album too, establishing a concrete connection between past and present. Forgoing guitars they duet on a version of Matraca Berg’s ‘Back When We Were Beautiful’, indicating romance and reminiscence for those days of the Hot Band, another highlight. The title track ‘Old Yellow Moon’ brings the show to a close, and the theatre is quick to their feet to show their appreciation.
A twenty something song get doesn’t prevent an encore, Crowell’s ‘Stars on the Water’ is begun by Rodney and band, with Emmylou dancing across the stage to join them. The heartfelt ‘Boulder to Birmingham’, that well known tribute to Gram that features on Emmylou’s breakthrough album ‘Pieces of the Sky’ brings tonight’s show to an emotional climax, Emmylou always acknowledging that important part of her past, yet with Rodney here, celebrating all that has come since too. The crowd are on their feet again in rapturous applause, and the band humbly bows, clapping the audience in return.
Well rehearsed to the point of being pristine, it might gain something by being a little rougher round the edges, but it’s faint criticism, with nearly thirty songs in tonight’s set, these two don’t scrimp when it comes to putting on a show. Testimony to both artists work, and tonight’s excellent performance, I would have happily listened to another thirty.
Upcoming Rag Lane shows:
Steve Earle and the Dukes and Duchesses – June 1st Vicar Street
Westport Festival of Music and Food – 29th – 30th of June, Westport
The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues Revisited – December 2013