Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell Pack the Seats Out Back of Lincoln Center

by delarue

Thirteen years ago Emmylou Harris played an outdoor show on the Fourth of July at Battery Park. She’d just released a superlative album, Red Dirt Girl, had Buddy Miller playing his usual amazing, Richard Thompson-esque lead guitar, and as a result there were plenty of people there who might not have been the year before. But that crowd was nothing like the mobscene that came out for her show with Rodney Crowell and their band a couple of nights ago at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Back in the day, if you wanted to hear country music in New York, your choices were typically Rodeo Bar or little Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg. Today, country is arguably New York’s default music outside of hip-hop (and hick-hop is probably on the way). Whenever pop music bottoms out, country always comes back, hard.

This show was a reminder of the rewards and risks of pairing a competent singer with a transcendent one. Crowell is best known as a songwriter: he wrote Until I Gain Control Again for Harris, and this time out he took the lead throughout an unexpectedly brisk take that relegated Harris to second fiddle. Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You fell into that same category. Other songs, like Wheels, a motoring, country gospel-tinged highway rock tune, and later a choogling shuffle that could have passed for a recent Nick Lowe song, benefited from Harris’ harmonies as the dynamics reached a peak.

Harris’ most unforgettable moment in a night full of many understated thrills was at the end of a version of another Townes Van Zandt classic, Pancho and Lefty. The outlaw tale portrays the bounty hunter giving his target a long leash and a couple extra days, “out of kindness, I suppose,” a phrase that Harris delivered low and hushed, letting the cruel sarcasm speak for itself. She’s got her choice of Nashville’s top musicians, and this particular band was no exception. The night’s opener, a gently bouncing take of Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel, featured the first of many fluid, resonant, almost pedal steel-toned solos from lead Telecaster player Jedd Hughes. Pretty much everybody got to take a solo, and made them soulful and emphatic. As you would expect, the upbeat numbers had the most electrifying moments: a brisk electric bluegrass tune about midway through the set had the keyboardist firing off a nimble honkytonk piano solo, then handing off to steel player Steve Fishell, who hit some red-sunset swells and fades before turning it over to Hughes’ keening intensity.

Generational reference: it’s hard to listen to Love Hurts and not hear the bleating version by mid-70s British metal band Nazareth. But the band picked up the pace after that with a blistering cover of Roger Miller’s Invitation to the Blues, then brought it down with the brooding Red Dirt Girl and an aptly nocturnal yet propulsive version of Stars on the Water. They encored with Boulder to Birmingham, an elegy for Parsons, whose meteoric career springboarded Harris to a stardom that she’s never looked back from. Harris has probably sung it  thousands of times, yet she and the band managed to make it sound fresh, and achingly wounded, a portrait of longing and loss. Right before she sang that one, Harris whispered her love and appreciation for New York and took care to mention her history here, having been a “horrible waitress” – and arguably the only artist ever to play both Gerde’s Folk City and Max’s Kansas City. The country portion of Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow night at 6 PM with Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale opening for another Americana vocal icon, Rosanne Cash: you’d best get there early.