Opening with the old Gram Parsons chestnut “Return of the Grievous Angel,” Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell made it clear that Wednesday night’s concert in the Johnny Mercer Theatre was to be a trip down memory lane.
Much of the two-hour show consisted of songs from the dawning days of country/rock, when Harris – a protégé of Parsons’ – launched her remarkable solo career with a string of wonderfully stylistic albums that married the genres in creative ways.
Many of Harris’ finest songs were penned by Crowell; while the two followed different paths over the years, their deepest bonds have remained unbroken. They’ve been friends for four decades, and to this day sing, write and record together when time and tide permit.
The Savannah Music Festival show found them backed by a five-piece band and blazing cheerfully through a cross-section of material from the past, from Crowell originals like “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” “Till I Gain Control Again” and “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” to Parsons’ “Wheels” and “Luxury Liner,” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”
They both played acoustic guitar.
Although many songs were performed as duets, each took the occasional lead; the white-haired Harris is still one of the very best harmony singers in Americana music, and her sweet, ethereal delivery hasn’t lost much of its gossamer beauty over 40 years of performing.
Crowell, who rarely plays any of his old songs any more, was clearly enjoying himself as the pair tore through “Stars on the Water” and “Bluebird Wine.” His boyish voice sounds virtually unchanged.
“Bluebird Wine,” first cut by Harris in 1975, was re-recorded as a duet for Old Yellow Moon, the first-ever Harris-Crowell duets album, which came out in February.
The concert’s middle section put the spotlight on “a good swath” (Crowell's words) of the new songs, including “Black Caffeine” (by Donivan Cowart), “Chase the Feeling” (Kris Kristofferson), “Spanish Dancer” (Patti Scialfa), “Back When We Were Beautiful” (Matraca Berg) and the old Waylon Jennings ballad “Dreaming My Dreams.”
Pleasant catalog surprises included Susanna Clark’s “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose” and the first song Emmy and Rodney composed together, “Tulsa Queen.”
Personally, I would like to have heard music from deeper within the artists’ more recent works, something from Crowell’s The Outsider or Harris’ Wrecking Ball.
But this show, exciting and fun, was all about celebrating the past. And I’ll take that. It was great to see and hear them together after all this time.
British guitarist Richard Thompson opened the concert with a brief set. Accompanied by a drummer and bassist, he tore through half of his new Electric album, from “Good Things Happen to Bad People” to “Salford Sunday” and “Sally B.”
Known as an exceptionally creative acoustic singer/songwriter, Thompson’s electric guitar work was exemplary; bringing both Jimi Hendrix and Albert Lee to mind while retaining the vaguely Celtic-flavored runs that have become his trademark.
“Tear-Stained Letter,” one of his best-known songs, was the coolest rave-up in an evening full of them.
During an acoustic interlude, Thompson played “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” one of the most buoyant and joyful motorcycle songs ever devised. His playing was so inspired, his singing so expressive, anyone who wasn’t previously a Thompson fan was probably converted during those four short minutes. What a fantastic song.
Later, Thompson joined the Harris-Crowell band for to take some screaming leads during “Ain’t Living Long Like This.” The ever-gracious Harris introduced Thompson as “one of the great artists of our time,” and you could tell she meant it.
And with her and Rodney Crowell on the stage, that meant three great artists at once.