Emmylou Harris at The Music Hall

Matthew Shelter on August 2, 2011

Emmylou Harris
The Music Hall
Portsmouth, NH
July 29

If there is a single sentiment that underlies much of Emmylou Harris’ long catalog of songs, it may be a line buried in “The Pearl,” off her 2000 album Red Dirt Girl: “Sorrow is constant, and the joys are brief.” One of life’s “brief joys,” of course, is listening to the very voice that carries all those sorrowful tunes. Harris touched on both the sorrow and the joy in a 22-song set – which included “The Pearl” – at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH last Friday evening.

She featured a good half dozen songs from her latest album, Hard Bargain, including “The Road,” her ode to the late Gram Parsons. She recounted being “discovered” by Parsons in the early ‘70s in a Washington, DC club, an encounter that grew into a brief but fortuitous collaboration that jump-started Harris’ career, which is now entering its fifth decade. Parsons would die in September 1973 of an accidental overdose. “I only knew him a short time,” Harris told The Music Hall audience. “But he changed my life forever.” Harris also played “My Name is Emmett Till,” recounting the 1955 lynching of a black teenager in Mississippi, and “Darlin’ Kate,” dedicated to another friend who is gone, Kate McGarrigle, who fell victim to cancer in 2010. Even a song described by Harris as a lullaby to her two-year-old granddaughter, “Goodnight Old World,” opens with these lines: “Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in teardrops, my eyes are so tired of the trouble I’ve seen.”

Lest one get the wrong impression, though, there is far more joy than sorrow at an Emmylou Harris show. Even the sad songs tend to offer some hint of redemption, or at least affirmation of life. Harris mixed in songs from all eras of her catalog: “Hello Stranger,” “Luxury Liner,” “Making Believe,” “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” from the ‘70s; “If I Needed You” from the ‘80s; “Going Back to Harlan” from the ‘90s; “Red Dirt Girl,” “Here I Am,” “Kern River” from the ‘00s.

Harris was backed, as usual, by her Red Dirt Boys, a collection of five players who look as if they may have been recruited at the local Greyhound station– until, that is, they pick up their instruments and you realize why Emmylou loves them as much as she does. Special treats were Will Kimbrough’s beautiful slide guitar on “The Road,” and Rickie Simpkins’ banjo, mandolin and fiddle on just about everything else.

In a superb pairing, The Civil Wars opened the show. The torchy chemistry between Joy Williams and John Paul White comes across even more on stage than it does on their acclaimed debut Barton Hollow. Among the highlights was a reinvention of MJ’s “Billie Jean” that earned the duo a standing ovation from The Music Hall crowd at the end of their set – no mean feat for an opening band.