What can I tell you? I’ve been a fan of Emmylou Harris since I first saw The Last Waltz at the cinema in 1979 and Rodney Crowell ever since a friend gave me a copy of Diamonds and Dirt on cassette as a birthday present. So, finally seeing not only one of them in concert, but both together had made me nervously excited for weeks in advance.
If you don’t know it, the Sage Music Centre on the Gateshead side of the banks of the River Tyne is an amazing building that artists now say is one of the finest auditorium’s in the world; although many local ‘music fans’ often criticize it as being ‘soulless’ and even ‘intimidating’. Personally I’m warming to it and find it perfect for concerts like this, when the crystal-clear acoustics come into their own, and the audience is made up of ‘actual’ fans that know and appreciate the artist’s full body of work.
The band were still setting up their instruments when Emmylou and Rodney made their entrance from opposite sides of the stage, and the roar that greeted them was still echoing in the rafters as the opening bars to (Return of the) Grievous Angel elicited an even greater noise. It was a delight hearing Emmylou sing this song, especially with Rodney’s world-weary voice providing delicious harmonies, but I couldn’t help think it was put in so early to appease the members of the Cult of Gram who were very much in evidence, sporting grey pony-tails and t-shirts bearing his likeness.
The platinum blonde didn’t wait for the applause to subside when she slid into Wheels from the Elite Hotel album and I knew we were going to be in for a ‘helluva night.’ I was to be proved correct as she then dipped into 1977’s Luxury Liner for a heartfelt version of Townes’ Poncho and Lefty .
So far Rodney had been providing harmonies and rhythm guitar but, with no introduction stepped up to the mic for his own, Still Learning How To Fly, which proved he wasn’t there to just make up the numbers.
It was only after something like their sixth song before either singer really spoke. Emmylou introduced ‘Til I Gain Control Again as being on a cassette that he had given her before joining the Hot Band; and while I didn’t recognise it, their voices melted together like butter on a crumpet and had me checking it out again the following day.
Without actually listing every song they sang, I will tell you that individually their voices are as good as ever and a lot stronger than you could hope for when you think about how long they’ve been singing and the type of smoky venues they played in for nigh on thirty years each.
As the first half flew by their version of Susannah Clark’s San Antone Rose was simply wonderful and the harmonies that Emmylou provided on Crowell’s Houston Kid made a once great song actually spine-tingling and the normally reserved Sage audience went wild at the end with actual whoops and hollers in among the whistling and cheering.
The first hour ended with a ‘trilogy of heartbreakers,’ to quote Ms. Harris, and it included another absolute stonking Classic – Love Hurts, which had me wiping tears from my eyes as I wrote ‘#1 funeral song’ in my notepad; and it has now been written into my will.
After a short break where everyone around me in the bar either looked thunderstruck or had a silly smile on their face, the second half began with Emmylou seated alone on the stage drinking herbal tea (long gone are the days of tequila! She sighed) and introduced her homage to her friend Kate McGarrigle – Darlin’ Kate; which had even more people wiping the corners of their eyes.
She was soon joined by Rodney who also took a seat – “just like a real singer-songwriter” – and told a short story to introduce a superb song he wrote with the poet Mary Karr, but I missed the title (whoops).
As the duo went into a spell where they performed 7 or 8 songs from the new album, OLD YELLOW MOON, I found myself doubting the words of several reviewers in UK newspapers and magazines; they all seemed underwhelmed by the band. My notes have the Australian guitarist Jedd Hughes as ‘scintillating’ and ‘knows his place/solos never over 40 seconds’ with the pianist/accordionist Chris Tuttle providing ‘light and shade’; the bass and drums ‘kept time like a metronome’ (speaking of the drummer, his kit was so small it could go as hand luggage, even on Ryan Air). If I had one criticism, it was that one-time Hot Club pedal steel player Steve Fisher, while supremely excellent, could have been left off a couple of songs, especially Rodney’s. But that could just have been me being picky.
Of the new songs, Spanish Dancer was wonderful, especially with the couple of Spanish guitar breaks that Hughes provided. Bluebird Wine was given a bit of a Rockabilly treatment that really lifted the tempo and mood. But, bearing in mind the quality and history of some of the songs on offer tonight, the one that ‘stole the show’ was Matraca Berg’s Back When We Were Beautiful, which just captured the spirit of the evening perfectly.
My favourite track on OLD YELLOW MOON, Black Caffeine, took on a new life tonight with a spookily atmospheric opening, followed by a bit of a Jazzy interpretation. I prefer the original; but still gave it ** in my notes.
As I checked my watch and realised that we had gone way past the 10.30 finish normally associated with Hall I, the band cranked things up a notch or two with Ain’t Living Long Like This which had the pianist giving us his best Jerry Lee Lewis impersonation as he rattled the keys.
After the obligatory charade of leaving the stage and ‘will they/won’t they return’ (the guitar tech. clearly replaced their guitars) they returned for Stars on the Water which again featured some amazing piano playing. Then, much to my surprise after reading several previous reviews, NOT Sin City but, in memory of George Jones, a boisterous version of One of these Days.
And that was it; they left the stage and 1,600 fans made their way home after seeing two Legends of not just Americana but Country Music too, who are still at the very top of their game.