Humphrey’s by the Bay, September 27, 2010
One of the nicer ways you could enjoy the waning days of summer (did we actually have a summer in SoCal this year?) was an evening with Emmylou Harris at one of the nicer venues in the area. At Humphrey’s, Harris provided a solid show, building her setlist from her wide and varied career.
“Evangeline” was a highlight, with her Red Dirt Boys providing a solid back up. She went a capella with the same trio (then called the Red Dirt Choir) for a couple songs. Her latest album All I Intended to Be (Nonesuch) was three years in the making, and is a blend of forgotten gems and wistful originals. Assembled during her time on the road with the likes of Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler and Buddy Miller, the album reflects a similarly eclectic approach. Produced by her ex-husband Brian Ahern (as were 11 of her previous albums) the collection evokes the melancholy mood Harris has assayed often and successfully in her canon.
Indeed, Harris’ willingness to push the edge of the envelope throughout her career has endeared her to fellow artists and fans. Brought into the spotlight initially not by Gram Parsons but by his fellow Burrito Brother Chris Hillman, Harris was introduced by Hillman to Parsons. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship, spawning a creative streak that Harris nurtures to this day. She assayed Parson’s “Wheels,” which is a melancholy tale from the road. Indeed, she acknowledged that she built her career on singing sad songs.
One of the other highlights at Humphrey’s was “Bang the Drum Slowly” from her Red Dirt Girl album. Harris introduced the song as a tribute to her father, a hero to many as a war vet. The lyrics speak about the inevitable path to dust, and the silence over Arlington. She sang it movingly. Harris is probably best known as an interpreter of other songwriters (much like her pal Linda Ronstadt), but with “Bang” Harris displayed her songwriting skill.
Harris is at the beginning of a tour that takes her through the Northeast, and she seemed uncharacteristically tentative at Humphrey’s, despite her decades of roadwork.