Last Night: Emmylou Harris At Verizon Wireless Theater
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."