Having relished their new album together, Old Yellow Moon, I couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Emmylou Harris reunited live with Rodney Crowell when their tour to promote the record came over to Europe. I was joined at Birmingham Symphony Hall by an enthusiastic audience; it was almost, but not quite a sell-out, and the crowd clearly enjoyed every second.
It was a generous set; two hours and twenty minutes revisiting highlights of the pair’s past careers (mainly the 70s when they first worked together with a sprinkling of songs from the new millennium), as well as songs from Old Yellow Moon. There was no opening act, and no time for one. The focus was on music rather than chat, with the first four songs completed before anyone spoke a word.
The evening opened with a reminder of Emmylou’s time with Gram Parsons as the band walked on stage and launched straight into ‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’, followed by his song ‘Wheels’ which Emmylou included on Elite Hotel and which was magical here.
A change of pace led to a beautifully understated version of ‘Pancho And Lefty’, opening with Emmylou and her acoustic guitar, with the band later coming in and finally Rodney adding his vocal – a stylistic template for many of the evening’s best songs.
Rodney then sang his own ‘Earthbound’ (from 2003’s Fate’s Right Hand), which I enjoyed much more live than on record. Emmylou then introduced the wonderful ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ as the first song Rodney ever sang for her. He sang a tender lead on the song, with a lovely harmony from Emmylou. The pair then sang ‘Tragedy’, a song they wrote together for her Red Dirt Girl album; while okay, it was not my favorite moment of the evening.
Emmylou paid tribute to the late Susanna Clark by singing Clark’s song ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’, which Emmylou recorded on 1978’s Luxury Liner. This was just delightful, with honky tonk piano. It was followed by a stripped down ‘Red Dirt Girl’, which was very good.
Rodney then spoke for the first time, unexpectedly sounding a little nervous, before singing his autobiographical ‘Rock Of My Soul’.
The couple then duetted on ‘Heaven Only Knows’, a song written by Emmylou’s ex-husband Paul Kennerley. It was perhaps the most unexpected song choice as it came from Emmylou’s largely overlooked 1989 record Bluebird, and the only song in the set to date from that decade. It sounded very good, though, and was a welcome inclusion.
The swooping melody of ‘Love Hurts’ was a highlight, with emotional vocals from both Emmylou and Rodney (who is a much better singer than the late Gram Parsons). I was less impressed by the martial beat of ‘Luxury Liner’, although I was probably alone in that reaction – it seemed to get a particularly enthusiastic amount of applause, perhaps to reward the band’s virtuoso performances. The sound was a bit muddy for me on this song, although generally the acoustics were superb, and I wasn’t surprised when Emmylou asked for the sound to be turned down for the next song.
The band took a much needed break while Emmylou sat down for a simple acoustic number, ‘Darlin’ Kate’, her lament for her late friend Kate McGarrigle. Friendship was perhaps the overarching theme of the night. Rodney returned on stage to join Emmylou on a lovely traditional version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘The Angels Rejoiced’. Emmylou then sang ‘Longtime Girl Gone By’, the song she sang on Rodney Crowell’s Kin album of songs written with poet Mary Karr. She didn’t know the song well, and had to use a lyric sheet, while Rodney accompanied her on guitar (he confessed he didn’t know the songs from that album all that well either).
By now the rest of the band was back, and Rodney sang ‘I Know Love Is All I Need’, which he introduced as something he had dreamed.
The Old Yellow Moon portion of the evening then arrived, with a joyful version of the album’s opener ‘Hanging Up My Heart’, followed by a excellent (if slightly too loud) ‘Invitation To The Blues’. Emmylou asked pointedly,
“Remember country music? It’s hard to find sometimes back in the States. But it’s in our hearts, and it’s on our record.”
It is possibly somewhat ironic that she then sang ‘Spanish Dancer’, which was written by Patti Scialfa, wife of rock star Bruce Springsteen, but it’s a pretty song and was performed well here. The band really sparkled on Crowell’s Bluebird Wine’, and Rodney and Emmylou duetted beautifully on ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’.
Australian lead guitarist Jedd Hughes played some very pretty Spanish acoustic guitar on Matraca Berg’s tender insight into growing old, ‘Back When We Were Beautiful’, while the Kris Kristofferson song ‘Chase The Feeling’ had a charming defiance. The bluesy rock of ‘Black Caffeine’ was my least favourite song on the record, but had a sultriness which worked well live.
I was a little surprised they didn’t do ‘Here We Are’ from the album, as that might have served as a tribute to George Jones, with whom Emmylou had recorded the song back in 1979.
It was back to the classics with an outstanding accordion-led version of ‘Leavin’ Louisiana In The Broad Daylight’ where the pair took turns on lead. Emmylou then sang a lovely version of the always moving ‘Boulder To Birmingham’, and Rodney sang his ‘Still Learning How To Fly’.
The band was at their very best on a stunning ‘Ain’t Living Long Like This’. Jedd Hughes’ guitar work was excellent (and I was generally impressed by his playing, and by his awareness of when to hold back), and Chris Tuttle’s keyboard solo on this song was ridiculously good. The main set culminated with the atmospheric title track from Old Yellow Moon, with prominent steel from Steve Fishell, who had rejoined Emmylou’s band after taking some years away from the road while raising a family.
A short encore consisted of Crowell’s ‘Stars On The Water’, before the evening ended as it had begun, with a Gram Parsons song, this time a lovely version of ‘Sin City’. They were rewarded with an almost ubiquitous standing ovation.
This was an excellent concert. Emmylou Harris’s voice is showing some signs of age, but she is still a fine interpreter, and the musical pairing with Rodney Crowell is among the best she has ever done. Seeing them together again was well worth taking a day off work to travel up to Birmingham. The tour continues in Europe to the end of May, and back in the US from June 1.