Two songs into their opening set, Ben Knox Miller of rag-tag Rhode Islanders the Low Anthem announced, “We’d like to invite Emmylou Harris onto the stage.” The headliner made her way to the microphone at center stage, and before joining them for “To Ohio,” she made a correction, declaring, “I invited myself.”
Indeed, Harris seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself during the song, and later when the Low Anthem re-joined her on stage for her own encore of “Evangeline.”
But while Harris’ 90-minute show was good – she is Emmylou Harris, after all, one of the sweetest singers on the planet – it rarely took the next step up to the level of greatness that she’s quite capable of hitting.
Part of the problem might have been her band – featuring Rickie Simpkins (mandolin and fiddle) and Phil Madeira (keyboards, accordion and guitar), anchored by the rhythm section of drummer Brian Owings and bassist Chris Donohue. They’re all good players, but they content to follow Harris rather than push her ahead. Compared to some of her previous bands, they lacked the spark of Spyboy and the sparkle of the Nash Ramblers.
There were, of course, flashes of brilliance. Her heart-wrenching rendition of Steve Earle’s “Goodbye” has now climbed into the No. 1 spot on my list of the All-Time Saddest Songs, pushing aside Walter Jackson’s “My Ship Is Coming In.”
She also hit the mark with such gems as the opening declaration of “Here I Am,” the hymn-like rendition of Tracy Chapman’s “All That You Have Is Your Soul” and the haunting “Michelangelo.”
The Low Anthem were quite impressive. Their opening set had a bit of a herky-jerky pacing to it, as they tried to cram too many of their wide-ranging musical styles into just 30 minutes on stage, but their casual performance was captivating nonetheless.
Performing on an intriguing assortment of oddball instruments – including pump organ, clarinet, jaw harp, musical saw, banjo, E-flat marching horn and electric hammered dulcimer – the quartet of multi-instrumentalists swept from the opening ballad “Ticket Taker” to the Catskill funk (think the Band-meets-the Felice Brothers) of the new “Apothecary” to the raucous rocker “Home I’ll Never Be.” The highlight was the intimate but intense ballad “This God Damn House,” which built to a mesmerizing climax as Knox Miller cajoled crowd members into joining him for a bout of a cell-phone feedback chirping.
They offered a handful of excellent new songs – presumably from their next album, “Smart Flesh,” slated for release in February – and it should be a real treat to see them offer their full-length show when they take the stage at MASS MoCA in North Adams on Saturday March 5.
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “With her multi-decade career and restless muse, Harris is the strong, long bridge from first generation country queens Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn to current country-folksters Tift Merritt, Patty Griffin and Mary Chapin Carpenter. In other words, she can bring the high-lonesome, old-school, to fill The Egg’s (larger) Hart Theatre with gray-hairs, but is also hip enough to bring the Low Anthem to open. No one else sounds like Harris and no one else plays like the Low Anthem, yet the show was as satisfying for its roots in hard-country and folk as for its wings of imagination. Harris’ crystalline voice still evoked clear cloudless skies; a sound so beautiful she got away with more slow, sad and quiet songs than other singers could. ‘Here I Am’ proclaimed her presence, then she became an ‘Orphan Girl’ and after the sad resignation of ‘Beneath Still Waters,’ she became a ‘Red Dirt Girl.’ Her more-than-expert quartet is the Red Dirt Boys.”
EMMYLOU HARRIS SET LIST
Here I Am
Beneath Still Waters
Red Dirt Girls
Strong Hand (Just One Miracle)
If I Could Only Win Your Love
All That You Have Is Your Soul
One of These Days
Talk to Me of Mendocino
Goin’ Back to Harlan
Bang the Drum Slowly
Shores of White Sand
Born to Run
Bright Morning Stars
Get Up John
Evangeline (with the Low Anthem)
THE LOW ANTHEM SET LIST
To Ohio (with Emmylou Harris)
Home I’ll Never Be
This God Damn House
Matter of Time