Emmylou Harris, Royal Festival Hall, London, June 1st 2011

A handful of dates in the UK behind this year’s release of HARD BARGAIN culminated in a sold-out show in London by Emmylou Harris and her five-piece band, The Red Dirt Boys. The ‘Boys’ Rickie Simpkins (fiddle, mandolin, vocals), Phil Madeira (accordion, keyboards, guitar), Will Kimbrough (guitar, vocals), Bryan Owings (drums), and Chris Donohue (bass guitar, upright bass) walked onto the stage and took their places among the array of instruments, immediately before Harris, with a spring in her step, joined them. They opened with Six White Cadillacs, Orphan Girl and Red Dirt Girl before Harris paused to say that they would be going back to a few old songs tonight but would be balancing those out with new ones, too. That opening trio of songs nicely reflected the mix of the set list - there were some old, some new, some borrowed and some blue…


Harris, up until the release of RED DIRT GIRL in 2000 was known primarily as an interpreter of other people’s songs. However, in the last decade she has written more material, mostly very well received, although the latest album has attracted some mixed reviews. Good at acknowledging her influences and those whose material she has ‘stolen,’ she paid tribute to a slew of ‘heavyweights’ throughout the evening by covering Beneath Still Waters (George Jones), If I Needed You and Pancho and Lefty (Townes Van Zandt), Hello Stranger (The Carter Family with Hazel Dickens’ arrangement), and, of course, ‘the reason why I am up on stage – because I ran into a fella called Gram Parsons.’ Over the years I have seen Harris in a number of live shows and she has never failed to acknowledge the debt she owes Parsons. His premature death at age 27 in 1973 affected her very deeply. Her (co-written with Bill Danoff) song Boulder to Birmingham from 1975’s PIECES OF SKY was a response to that loss and tonight’s rendition was, once again, a moving tribute. Additionally, in sequence, but with a change of mood, she and the band covered Wheels and Luxury Liner. The latter really engaged the audience; it was played with such energy that you might have mistaken it as the closing song of the night. It wasn’t but it did signal the band leaving the stage to allow Harris to perform one song solo.


A slight, shall we say, technical hitch, occurred when standing alone on stage, Harris found that she was in possession of the wrong guitar! As her guitar technician remedied this, she explained that she wanted to use her ‘second guitar’ one she’d purchased back in 1966. Although it had ‘been in the hospital, it was now well’ as she then ably proceeded to demonstrate. The song Prayer in Open D was sung in the clearest vocals of the night. Her vocals were at times difficult to decipher and occasionally sounded a little ‘thin’ but at age 64 with such a long career behind her, that is perhaps not entirely unexpected.


As this performance was not just a trip down memory lane but a showcase, too, for the newer songs, they played six of the thirteen offerings from the latest album. I was disappointed that the title track, the Ron Sexsmith-penned Hard Bargain, did not feature; but I guess you can’t have it all? Through the choice of material (25 songs) Harris gave us a sense of her longevity as a performer delving far enough back into her catalogue to joke that she first recorded some of the material when she was still a brunette!   


Particular highlights included Kimbrough duetting on If I Needed You, the Kate McGarrigle song Talk to Me of Mendocino, and The Road written about Gram Parsons. The ‘Boys’ were a well-oiled machine; Harris has a knack of surrounding herself with top-rated musicians and they were no exception. Their playing was tight yet sympathetic to Harris’ understated and graceful style.


Sparkling in both performance and dress (she wore a silver headband and had glitter in her, now trademark, long white hair) Harris and the Red Dirt Boys were called back for a two-song encore – One Of These Days and Pancho and Lefty before leaving to a standing ovation. Jela Webb


Views: 229

Tags: BryanOwings, ChrisDonohue, EmmylouHarris, PhilMadeira, RickieSimpkins, WillKimbrough

Comment by declan culliton on June 4, 2011 at 12:37am
Saw her last Saturday in Dublin...stunning show and as good as I've seen her for many years. Excellent band,setlist and voice as clear as ever!
Comment by Brendan Cooke on June 4, 2011 at 4:53am
The Manchester gig the night before London was excellent too and it seems like Emmylou did a slightly different set-she didn't sing Pancho and Lefty or One of These Days and no Talk to Me of Mendocino but she did do Together Again and Old Five and Dimers . She performed most of the other songs you mentioned and I thought If I Needed You was a standout and it was a nice touch singing Boulder To Birmingham immediately after The Road. Like you I would have liked to hear Hard Bargain but it was a no show! Still, a great night!
Comment by Trevor on June 5, 2011 at 4:52am
Thanks for the review Jela, it sounds like a wonderful show.
Comment by philip moynagh on June 6, 2011 at 3:57am
was at the dublin gig too, brilliant night, she seemed to get younger as the night wore on, highlight for me was old five and dimers.
Comment by russ on June 7, 2011 at 3:46am
Thanks Jela... great review! i liked the part about her "second" guitar.
Comment by Cynder Smith on June 7, 2011 at 4:07am

Thanks you for the update Jela   ~ a two-song encore and a standing ovation~  now that's what i'm talkin' about....


Comment by Lwood on June 7, 2011 at 5:25am
Thanks Jela....Emmylou never fails to put her heart into a performance.  Did it seem odd not to have Buddy Miller with her, it's been so long that he's toured with her, all the way back to the Spyboy band and the Wrecking Ball tour....but Emmylou can do it with any band, that's what makes her so special.
Comment by Carl Parker on June 7, 2011 at 10:33am
Sounds great and I wish I'd been there, but we'd already got tickets for Clapton & Winwood at the Royal Albert Hall. Fortunately that was a great night as well, but had tickets for both gigs gone on sale at the same time both my wife and I would have been unanimous in choosing Emmy.
Comment by Jela Webb on July 6, 2011 at 5:38pm
Thanks all for your positive comments - much appreciated.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.