Emmylou Harris – The Barbican (London – May 26th 2014)
In 1995, Emmylou Harris released Wrecking Ball, a ground-breaking album for her. Daniel Lanois, known for his work with U2, Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson produced it – a daring choice and not a partnership that would have immediately sprung to mind. The album with its (trademark Lanois) haunting ambient reverb, split her audience. On the one hand you had traditionalists finding it a step too far, U.S. country music radio stations who had regularly featured Harris on their playlists turning away from her; yet on the other hand, critical acclaim ensued, alternative rock and college radio stations started playing Harris for the first time and brought her to the attention of a younger audience.
The album won a Grammy in 1996 for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
So, 19 years later, a deluxe edition of Wrecking Ball has been issued including a collection of previously unreleased material and a DVD of the documentary Building The Wrecking Ball. In celebration of the re-issue Harris and Lanois embarked upon a short tour of the U.K. and this show was the second of a two-night stand in London.
Lanois opened the evening by playing a 45-minute set. Walking onstage, without introduction, he sat at a pedal steel and played a solo instrumental before being joined by Steven Nistor on drums and Jim Wilson on bass. Lanois is known for his soundscapes and the ghostlike ambience he creates with his music, however he wasn’t universally acclaimed with shouts of “turn the volume down”, “when’s Emmylou coming on?” and “have you done a sound check?” being directed at him. Thankfully, it was from a minority, but the spikiness of those shouting out made for a somewhat uncomfortable opening set.
After a short interval, Harris and the trio took the stage and, early on, explained that those of us who were familiar with the Wrecking Ball album weren’t going to be in for any surprises as they were “going to play the album live for you right now”.
I personally love the album and was very happy to sit and listen to it being played in sequence. Yes, in a concert setting, you have to pace song selections carefully, making sure that you have a balance between light and shade. So, for some it might be challenging to listen to the album in its entirety, given its inherently sombre tones; but I thoroughly enjoyed the show.
Harris’ voice has matured and her once translucent vocal is a little earthier these days. Similarly, Lanois’ vocals are now deeper, but they complemented each other well. Harris has always had a wonderful knack of choosing songs to cover and this collection is no exception. The McGarrigles’ “Goin’ Back to Harlan” was particularly moving as Harris explained that she “misses Kate a lot”. Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” underlined Harris’ excellent choices, as when it was first recorded Welch was an upcoming singer-songwriter who has since gone on to much critical praise and commercial success.
Finishing the run through with a couple of Lanois’ songs that didn’t make the cut (but appeared on his well-received solo album Acadie) “Still Water”and “The Maker” were a strong ending and illustrated why he hadn’t played them during his opening set.
Returning for encores, Harris delved deep into her back catalogue with her classic “Boulder to Birmingham” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”. There was also a tribute to the recently departed Jesse Winchester with “My Songbird” and a quasi-acapella of “Calling My Children Home”, dedicated to all the lost children with a hope they find their way home, was extremely touching.
Wrecking Ball remains the bravest album in her canon and I am with those who regard it as her best.