DURHAM — Were gonna leave you with another sad song, Emmylou Harris announced with a smile and a bit of a shrug just before the final song of her Saturday night show with Rodney Crowell at Durham Performing Arts Center. Its just what we do.
So sad, itll make you happy, Crowell added, and they started in on Love Hurts. Yes, it does.
Theres no one better at evoking heartbroken grief than Harris, who Crowell admiringly described as a soul poet with the voice of an angel and the heart of a cowgirl. Elder stateswoman of Americana music, Harris is a singer whose best medium is the vocal duet. Sort of like Julia Childs cooking up beef bourguignon or Justin Timberlakes hosting Saturday Night Live, singing duets from the business end of romantic tragedy is what Harris was put on this earth to do.
Of course, there were a few songs Saturday night where it was mostly just Harris on the microphone, which was heavy too much of Harris alone in her full-on emotive quaver mode can almost be too intense to bear. If you can hear her sing the late great Townes Van Zandts lament Pancho and Lefty without misting up, well, youre a better man than I am.
But most of the show found Harris dueting with Crowell, her longtime friend and associate going back to his days playing in her Hot Band in the mid-1970s. The 23-song set list dipped into many of his compositions from over the years, including Til I Gain Control Again, Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight and I Aint Living Long Like this.
Opening act Richard Thompson joined the headliners for an onstage cameo on the latter song. His hour-long opening set had been very fine and quite droll (even his between-song Thank you s were funny), long on guitar fireworks that made his instrument sound like a cast of thousands. But that was nothing compared to Thompsons guitar duel on Long with Jedd Hughes, the hotshot young Australian guitarist in the Harris/Crowell band. Hughes did better than most mortals and more than held his own, but Thompsons casual virtuosity still had him shaking his head in wonder afterward.
After a two-song nod to the late Gram Parsons (still Harris best-ever duet partner) on the opening Return of the Grievous Angel and Wheels, a good chunk of Saturday nights set came from Harris and Crowells new album Old Yellow Moon (Nonesuch Records). They covered nine of its 12 songs, hitting the mark with Patti Scialfas Spanish Dancer, Kris Kristoffersons Chase the Feeling and a bluesy take on the Hank DeVito co-write Black Caffeine, driven by Byron Houses upright bass.
Naturally, it was the sad ones that lingered strongest afterward, especially Matraca Bergs Back When We Were Beautiful a looking-back-in-wistful-anguish ballad that went straight to the heartstrings. Harris showed an almost agonizing sense of vulnerability, and that willingness to put herself out there emotionally is what makes Harris one of the greats.
All that, and shes got a sense of humor. Early in the show, the Old Yellow Moon portion of the program kicked off with Hanging Up My Heart, on which Harris narrator vowed that shes swearing off of romance. But as the song faded, Harris threw out a reassuring quip: Not really.
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