REVIEW: Emmylou Harris and the Red Dirt Boys on Thursday at the Winspear

Posted on 24 Jun 2011 at 11:14am
Emmylou Harris

Let me start by saying that I like Emmylou Harris, but I can’t say that I’ve followed her enough to know much from her catalog save some signature tunes. But I had to see her. I mean, it is Emmylou Harris, and while I can’t say she disappointed, she wasn’t quite what I expected.

On tour for her 2011 release Hard Bargain, Harris played a healthy set of old and new Thursday night, coming in just over the two-hour mark. With an impressive catalog of 26 albums, she wasn’t short for material. She opened the show with the new “Six White Cadillacs,” a playful tune that set a welcoming tone. Without missing a beat, she followed up with “Orphan Girl” from her 1995 landmark album Wrecking Ball. A song I liked, but this is where the unexpected part began.

“Orphan” has a middle pacing that’s not too slow and not too fast. It coasts on beautiful guitars and mid-tempo beats. Which is fine, but almost every song after it followed this same formula. Regardless of the quality of the songs, the pacing was so even-keeled that it was a couple of shades shy of boring. She did punctuate it with a couple of rousing ditties, but the first one came an hour into the show. If she had just added two or three more of those, it would have had a better flow.

With a simple setup, though, Harris and her Red Dirt Boys delivered solid music, and it’s the voice that mesmerizes the audience. This wasn’t a crowd of honky-tonkers — we all sat in our seats and soaked in the gorgeous harmonies and strings Harris and the band were giving. After every song, the crowd cheered, but it was more like having a friend over to play music and you applaud in support. There wasn’t this awe about her, because she came off (and comes off) as so down to earth and, although not overly chatty, fun to quip with. She’s a classy lady, but also adorable. She’s a star, but with such heart in her singing and her lyrics, she’s also a friend perhaps to her fans. Or feels like one. You didn’t even see people chatting with each other. Their focus was on the singer on stage.

She roused major applause when she talked about her love of dogs and the informal dog rescue in her backyard (“Yes, I am one of those people”). Dog lovers all over the venue roared and clapped as she went into new song “Big Black Dog.” She talked about her parents and serenading their lives, but the most touching moment was her tribute to former collaborator Kate McGarrigle, who died last year battling cancer. Also from her new album, Harris sang “Darlin’ Kate” which was both magical and heartbreaking at the same time. The song is glorious in its rememerance but Harris’ naturally pained voice made it touching without being sappy. Long story short, I wasn’t the only one who teared up.

Even with the show’s pacing, it’s hard not to recognize her talent. Harris has had longevity for a reason since her 1969 folk debut Gliding Bird, she’s still at it and still has it. With just a few interludes of slight chatting with the audience, Harris sang for more than two hours straight through. And those boys of hers kept right up. Harris has nothing to prove at this point, but she still impresses.

I didn’t expect much of a gay audience there. A few lesbian couples spotted the impressive number of people who turned out, but other than the guy in skinny jeans, tight shirt and decent arms accompanying his mother(?), the guys may not be all that into her.

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