Everly Brothers – Riverside Theatre (Milwaukee, WI)
The Delmore Brothers and the Louvin Brothers have long since passed into history as performing duos. But while Don & Phil Everly will always be seen as newcomers compared to these earlier brother harmony groups, they honored the past with style and recounted their own important legacy during a recent stop in Milwaukee.
One might think the Everly Brothers would now strive to make their show a living jukebox, including as many hits as possible. This could be especially tempting now, with a musical stage play of their lives currently running at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. But almost the opposite seemed true. The brothers’ performance demonstrated a renewed interest in emphasizing the musical traditions that had been so influential on their own past.
The 70-minute set began with two songs honoring their home state, with “Kentucky” melting into a fine and unexpected rendition of their last pop chart entry, the memorable “Bowling Green” (#40, 1967). The performance that followed was long on ballads; Don & Phil knew what still best suited their voices and what the audience most wanted to hear.
If the brothers had been sitting with their huge black Gibsons on your worn home sofa, they probably wouldn’t have changed much about the show, relying mainly on songs that still meant something to them. Don was the front man, singing lead and giving a bit of background at various junctures. He spoke of their father Ike’s ability with the guitar, and how this led Chet Atkins to take an interest in the boys and bring them to Nashville. In fact, the middle of the show featured a brief acoustic medley of country and folk tunes from the great Songs Our Daddy Taught Us album, of which Don says they are still considering a follow-up.
Tradition aside, the reason the Riverside Theatre was filled for the Everlys show was the harmonies. And like the Louvins and the Delmores before them, the Everlys still have the distinctive sound of themselves. Whether as a duo or with a full backing band, their inimitable harmonies remained intact and fresh. It’s true that they don’t seem to try for challenges such as the long sustained vocal notes of “Cathy’s Clown”, and the hard-rocking tunes are paced appropriately for the sake of singers who have lived six decades. But if there is anything lost from the stamina of these brothers, it is more than made up by their pure talent as singers. They can still hit the most intricate of harmony patterns without even glancing at one another for articulation cues.
Albert Lee has been playing guitar with the Everly Brothers for some time, adding his great instrumental lines to the harmony without ever stealing focus from Don & Phil. A surprise on steel guitar was Buddy Emmons, who was warmly received. The Everlys briefly left the stage late in the concert to let Emmons and Lee each have a featured number. And while a longer set from Phil & Don would have been welcome, who could complain about an intermission like this?
The Everly Brothers’ many hit singles are undeniable. But an arguably more important aspect of their legacy was on display at this show: their breathtaking and still uniquely influential harmonies. Charlie Louvin once remarked that he and brother Ira saw their idols the Delmore Brothers perform live only one time, late in the duo’s career. “And they sounded just like the records of decades before — the harmonies still fresh and pure,” marveled Charlie. “Neither Ira or I were let down in the least.” He could just as well have been describing the performance of Don & Phil Everly on this night; nobody was let down.