I first heard Emmylou Harris quite by accident on the radio station WBAI in 1970 while visiting New York for my writing gig in Philadelphia. It was a short set, perhaps just 30 minutes or so in the studio, but what piqued my interest at first was that David Bromberg was backing her up (whom I had met at the Philly Folk Fest the year before). But what hooked me was she did a song by Townes Van Zandt, whom I had also first met/seen in 1969. She was the first person I had ever heard cover a Townes song. As I later learned, she too was among those fortunate enough to have known him at that time, saw his undeniable talent up close. And she once opened for him at Gerde's in New York.
Despite recording and touring with Gram Parsons, I did not get to see her live again until 1975, soon after her first solo album for Warner Brothers was released, at a small amusement park in rural West Virginia on the 4th of July. This was just three months after her first public performance with The Hot Band at the Boarding House in San Francisco.
Nearly twenty years into her solo recording career, I think she grew restless and wanted to stretch. While she made her mark championing traditional country music without frills or fads she did so when there were few others doing it. At that time country music was defined by Billy Sherrill's "Nashville Sound" that was like saccharine and the beginnings of rock's infiltration that became the infamous "outlaw" bullshit. Such stalwarts of country music like the Louvin Brothers were nowhere to be found on record or the radio. Emmylou was not only at the forefront of embracing real country, she was mostly alone.
However, twenty years on things had changed and Emmylou was one of many. Respected and revered certainly, but no longer alone. So, my own take was she needed to be revitalized, to do something different and unexpected. That took the form of Daniel Lanois, who while had some "Americana" cred by working with Dylan, Robbie Roberston and The Neville Brothers, his work was more rock and avant grade oriented. So, it was not a given that they would even get along let alone result in a viable recording. But, as we all know now 'Wrecking Ball' is one of the handful of seminal albums, essential albums such as "Kind Of Blue," "Sgt. Pepper," "Blue" and "Blood on the Tracks" that need no introduction, no explanation.
One of the least discussed aspects of "Wrecking Ball" has been how significant the rhythm section to the music. With the jazz-oriented Brian Blade on drums and Daryl Johnson playing bass the music envelopes the listener in spirals and sweeps that leave you on a tightrope without a net. It was, to quote Emmylou herself, her "weird" record. And we are all the better for it. As those ads say, "Here's to the crazy ones." They are ones who change things.
So, it was with great expectation when it was first announced that "Wrecking Ball" would be performed on October 24 in its entirety by nearly all who had played on the record, including Lanois on guitar, Blade on drums, Malcom Burn on keyboard and filling in for Johnson on bass was Jim Wilson. While this performance was a one of kind, she and the band simply did not do a few rehearsals and do the show. Emmylou has been touring with most of the band and had been regularly performing the songs during the past several months. So when the band took the stage last Wednesday eve they were tight.
The performance took place at Marathon Music Works, less than a mile west of downtown and a couple of miles where the album was recorded. It's in a neighborhood of warehouses and small houses being revitalized. Who knows, maybe this could become the next East Nashville. To add an extra ambience, the performance benefitted Crossroads Campus, an organization that brings together at risk folks with rescue animals. The thesis is if those who have not seen enough love in their lives can experience the unconditional love of a dog, he/she can begin to show that same love to others. While I have never been that down and out, I can testify to how having a rescued mutt in your life can make you a better person.
As expected, before "Wrecking Ball" Emmylou and band (less Lanois) performed some songs, eight(!) in total to warm things up. (See the setlist below.) However, what was unexpected was they were mostly her own compositions. Expectations were again turned when Lanois took the stage the album's songs were not done in order, save for the first one, 'Where Will I be.' Instead of detracting, it added a sense of urgency. While Lanois' distinctive guitar grounded the sound, Emmylou's vocals were, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, cold blue steel and sweet fire, it was Brian Blade's percussion work that made the music soar, added extra urgency that kept driving the music upward, onward, outward. He was overwhelming. Both Emmylou and Lanois acknowledged his influence as quit a few times each would go stage right where the drums were located and act as though that portion of the song was a duet.
Despite Lanois having not been part of the touring, you got the feel that the album is so ingrained him, that his musical memory is so complete that he could walk in off the street and blow anyone out of the water. That is what what he did. While Emmylou was and always will be the focal point of the music, everyone on stage took his/her cues from Lanois when performing on stage. He was in total command of not only his role as guitarist he was the director as well. Nowhere was this more apparent than Malcom Burn who played on the record and has produced some of Emmylou's albums -- at times seemed to work quite hard at keeping up. And while many unique guitarists will use six to eight during a single show, Lanois only used one to get all those otherworldly sounds out of. His equipment was simple: a Jack Deville “Dark Echo” pedal and a 1953 Fender deluxe tweed amp.
When the eighth song, 'Goodbye,' was performed Steve Earle (whom we had seen earlier talking to a sound guy) came out to a renewed round of appreciation. He stayed on for two additional songs, 'Every Grain of Sand' and 'Sweet Old World.' While Steve sand some lead on his song, he too took his cues from Lanois. He seemed humbled in Lanois' presence.
The band closed the album out with what was the most difficult song to record, Julie Miller's 'All My Tears' which took the show to yet another level. But there was one more treat, a song not on the record, Lanois' 'The Maker' with additional lyrics and improvisations that would leave all the jam bands I have ever heard in the dust. It was exhilarating.
That was it, twenty-one songs, thirteen with Lanois and Blade leading the way. No encore as none was needed, two hours of non-stop music. As the year nears its end, I have seen more individual performances than a year has days and this is my personal highlight.
(All photos by Amos Perrine taken at the Marathon Music Works, October 24, 2012.)