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Watching Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell do their first-ever official show as a duo, you were tempted to walk outside the Troubadour’s entry door and re-check the official club capacity, because the number of surprise guests Saturday seemed about to surpass it, audience aside. Few ticket-buyers would have guessed that the “…And Friends” addendum on their tickets meant they were destined to attend an unofficial Grammy party that would put any of Clive Davis’s to shame.
“There’s enough soul on this stage to be an antidote to the entire Grammys,” quipped the now rarely seen Joan Baez.
Besides the queen of folk, the on-stage guest list also included Bonnie Raitt, the Zac Brown Band, JD Souther, and Joan Osborne, each of whom sang two of their own songs, and Damien Rice, John Fullbright, and Shawn Camp, who each did one. Squeezing all those folks into a 135-minute set, there was barely time for Harris and Crowell to promote their own album.
But their much-awaited joint project, “Old Yellow Moon,” isn’t out till Feb. 26, and the proper tour behind it (which they’ll co-headline with Richard Thompson) doesn’t get underway till March 13 in New Orleans, so the duo clearly had pal-ship, not promo, on their minds when they booked the gig. Given the lineup, it was remarkable that the ostensible headliners did manage to claim a fair share of the evening’s highlights all by themselves… which is maybe not a huge surprise when you’re Emmylou friggin’ Harris and Rodney freakin’ Crowell.
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“Old Yellow Moon” is a mostly-covers album that’s the country-est thing that either of these former mainstream-Nashville stars has recorded in close to 20 years. It does eventually encompass the folkier and/or rockier leanings that both performers have shifted toward in the last two decades, but both the album and show began with two sheer honky-tonk songs, Hank DeVito’s “Hanging Up My Heart” and Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues” (which Crowell introduced as being “as close as country music gets to Howlin’ Wolf”). On songs like these, it was a gas to hear Harris in particular momentarily set aside the “crystalline” tones and deeper themes for which she’s most beloved and just play the informal barroom mama.
One of the other tunes that made it from the forthcoming album to the set list is a real curio: “Bluebird Wine,” which is essentially Crowell covering Harris covering Crowell. They jointly told the story of how in 1974, she happened upon Crowell’s demo of his roadhouse barnburner, which became the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Having him sing lead on it now, she explained, was a chance for everybody “to hear what I heard then.”
There was plenty other nostalgia to go around in the show. JD Souther talked about co-writing “a song about this whole place” — i.e., the Troubadour — “that became an imaginary place in our minds,” which of course was “Sad Café,” the bittersweet benediction to the first chapter of the Eagles’ career. And Bonnie Raitt recalled being on the “hallowed ground” of the club’s stage 40 years ago, opening for Danny O’Keefe and Paul Butterfield, before dueting with Harris on “Angel From Montgomery,” the John Prine composition that Raitt turned into a classic a mere 39 years ago.
Zac Brown was the only current reigning superstar on hand but acquitted himself well among the vets, bringing his band members out to join him for four-part harmonies on the Wood Brothers’ “The Luckiest Man” and a new song he said they’d just finished writing that afternoon which seemed to go by the title of “One Day With You” and seemed to be a leading candidate for their next album’s leadoff single.
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Many of the guests did their own thing on-stage as Harris and Crowell merely looked on, but a few, like Raitt, had rehearsed some harmonies with Emmylou — including, most notably, Damien Rice, who has almost turned into a where-are-they-now case, not having released a studio album since his 2006 breakthrough. His vocals on “The Blower’s Daughter” counted as the loudest and most gorgeously passionate of the night, and the extra poignance that Harris’ harmony part brought to the lonesome tune only made its ironic “’Till I find somebody new” kicker all the more incongruous and made even Rice chuckle.
Baez was an inevitable crowd favorite, explaining that she rarely ventures out of northern California anymore because her mother is about to turn 100, “but I would have had shut-in’s regret if I hadn’t.” “There’s nothing like company,” said Harris. “Except solitude,” quipped Baez, clearly not completely ruing her current reclusiveness. After opening with Steve Earle’s “God is God,” she reprised her 1975 classic “Diamonds and Rust,” and seemed to have some good-natured but pointed words for its ostensible subject, Bob Dylan, as she altered the lyrics to say, “You said my poetry was lousy — you son of a bitch!”
But for all that star power, the highlight may have come much earlier in the night, when Harris and Crowell did one of the upcoming album’s songs, a winsome cover of “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” a mid-‘70s Waylon Jennings top 10 hit that might be one of the most underrated country ballads of all time. Its rueful tone could have been as much of an elegy for the salad days of the Troubadour as Souther’s “Sad Café,” but the Crowell-Harris harmonizing made it clear we’re still living in a musical golden age.
Hanging Up My Heart
Invitation to the Blues
I Didn’t Know – John Fullbright
Dreaming My Dreams With You
Chase the Feeling
The Luckiest Man – Zac Brown Band
One Day With You – Zac Brown Band
When the Blue Hour Comes – Joan Osborne
That Is How You Work On Me – Joan Osborne
The Blower’s Daughter – Damien Rice
Sis Draper – Shawn Camp
Closing Time – JD Souther
Sad Café – JD Souther
Dimming of the Day – Bonnie Raitt
Angel From Montgomery – Bonnie Raitt
God is God – Joan Baez
Diamonds and Rust – Joan Baez
Till I Gain Control Again
Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight
Old Yellow Moon
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