Bringing it all back home
Emmylou Harris is in her 50s now, and she's as relevant today as she was two decades ago--maybe more so, because she proves with each successive album that time is her accomplice and not her rival. Harris has watched her mentor Gram Parsons die, her heroes fade away, and her record deals disintegrate, and still she stands as one of the greatest singers alive, each record better than its predecessor. That she could outdo herself yet one more time with 1995's ethereal, magical Wrecking Ball--the sound made when an angel dances with a devil, in this case Daniel Lanois--offered tangible proof that she's among the rarest of (song)birds, an artist who ages without ever running out of breath. Her 1995 album is better than her revered 1975 record (Pieces of the Sky, her solo debut)--perhaps she ages in reverse.
Now comes the next inevitable step in her (r)evolution, an in-concert, self-released document of her long-going tour with the Spyboy band in which she reinvents herself one more time...or maybe reinvent isn't the right word. Perhaps restore is more like it: Using Lanois' less-is-more theory (he believes ambient echoes fill in more blanks than a thousand notes), Harris for the first time records live versions of old songs, including "Love Hurts" (which she and Parsons once turned into a death-till-we-part duet) and "Boulder to Birmingham" off her debut. She and her top-notch band--guitarist-singer Buddy Miller, bassist Daryl Johnson, and drummer Brady Blade--rescue ancient echoes and make them sound so tangible, so very alive. "Tulsa Queen," off 1977's immortal Luxury Liner, is rendered here as a translucent, fragile sketch, so much more effective than in its original form. Same goes for "Boulder to Birmingham," which captures her voice never before sounding so pure, so sharp--it's like a knife carved out of gold, its handle made of oak.
Harris remains the ultimate hybrid artist, as much a closet rocker as country revivalist as gospel-blues revisionist. But her current Neil Young-Jimi Hendrix fetish wears better than her Elvis-Beatles obsession that marked her early records; she's become her own subgenre, bringing the likes of Willie Nelson into the fold (she appears all over his forthcoming Teatro, also produced by Lanois). She's also what Dave Alvin refers to as a folkie who plays two kinds of music: soft folk (her redo of Jessie Winchester's "My Songbird" and the trad ballad "Green Pastures") and loud folk (her take on Chris Hillman-Gram Parsons' "Wheels" and Rodney Crowell's "I Ain't Living Long Like This" reveal she's still the sweetheart of the rodeo and the queen of the arena). And maybe new-age folk too: She closes out Spyboy with a cover of Lanois' own "The Maker," giving it all heart where the original had only a little soul.
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