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