Emmylou Harris almost sheepishly admitted the order for the evening last night at the Opera House was to be a program of “sad, depressing songs.” Before such an estimation could be construed as deflating, though, performance partner Rodney Crowell elaborated.
“It’s kind of our forte.”
That it is – and was. For the closing night of their current tour, the two Americana song stylists, whose professional histories extend back over four decades, turned what they might view as an arsenal of songs rich in traditional country music misery into a performance of relaxed, roots-conscious elegance.
The repertoire reached out to tunes written by Townes Van Zandt, Susanna Clark, Matraca Berg, Lucinda Williams and others. But no writer figured more prominently in the mix than Crowell, an original member of Harris’ famed Hot Band and a songsmith whose music she has continually mined on recordings throughout her career. The focus of the concert may have been on the two co-billed recordings the pair have recently issued – 2013’s Old Yellow Moon and 2015’s The Traveling Kind - but the setlist also scanned the separate careers of both artists, uncovering a treasure trove of great Crowell songs along the way.
One of the first offered last night was the devastating Till I Gain Control Again, cut by Harris on her second Warner Bros. album, 1976’s Elite Hotel, but performed last night by Crowell with quiet, sobering intensity. By show’s end, though, the spirits turned jubilant with a pair of Crowell tunes recorded by Harris on 1977’s Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town that summoned a blend of Cajun invitation (Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight) and roadhouse jubilation (I Ain’t Living Long Like This).
With Crowell’s songs dominating the set, it was perhaps easy to view Harris strictly as a vocal stylist. While her original tunes were in shorter supply last night, they were still every bit as emotive – especially the funereal Boulder to Birmingham - as Crowell’s darker works. Their collaborative songs were potent, too, from 1976’s regally plaintive Tulsa Queen to the conversational and confessional title tune to The Traveling Kind.
While much of the concert delved into collaborative music both vintage and new, two of the most lasting highlights were presented back to back in the middle of the show by featuring the performers separately. The songs also scoped out a slightly more recent past.
The first, the title tune to Harris’ 2000 album, Red Dirt Girl, was a gorgeous ambient affirmation of life and hope beyond an isolated upbringing (“One of these days I'm gonna swing my hammer down away from this red dirt town; I’m gonna make a joyful sound”). That was followed by Crowell’s The Rock of My Soul, from 2001’s The Houston Kid. It outlined a childhood from (literally) similar terrain but sported far less forgiving parentage (“The rock of my soul didn't have much charm with the lack of education on a red dirt farm”) and a groove of gospel-esque intensity.
For all the back and forth between these two, the evening’s last word went to another songwriting giant that remains Harris’ prime musical mentor. Wrapping up the festivities, refashioning the blues into a welcoming prayer, was Gram Parsons’ Return of the Grievous Angel. Led, perhaps fittingly, by Crowell, the finale wasn’t a case of musical revision, just renewal.