There she was—the peerless Emmylou Harris, one of the most influential musical performers to bridge rock and country music during the 1970s, and the possessor of a legendary, otherworldly soprano, onstage in front of a sold-out crowd in Tucson.
With her lush mane now fully silver at 64, she looked positively luminous. Backed by a tight five-piece band, she played sublime, gorgeous music for almost two hours.
One could listen to Harris sing solo all night, and it would be thoroughly satisfying—in fact, it's so easy to become lost in her vocal melodies that I didn't always listen to the lyrics—but she also received great background and harmony vocal assistance from guitarist Will Kimbrough, keyboards player Phil Madera and fiddler-mandolin player Rickie Simpkins. The whole group, by the way, simply killed, playing restrained live arrangements that might have been called "chamber twang."
Harris long has been known for her artful interpretations of songs written by others. She performed tunes written by Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, the Stanley Brothers, Buck Owens and Bill Monroe, among others. Of course, she sang Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," Gram Parsons' "Luxury Liner" and the Carter Family standard "Hello Stranger." Harris has made each an immortal work of art, and she reminded us why last Friday night.
Since her 2000 album, Red Dirt Girl, Harris has written many of the tunes on her records. The semi-autobiographical title track from that album was a warm and rich highlight, as was "O Evangeline" from 2003's Stumble Into Grace. Some of her best performances came from her latest release, Hard Bargain, such as the mini-manifesto "The Road"; "The Ship on His Arm," a recounting of the love shared by her mother and father; and "Darlin' Kate," an especially touching number which she penned for a late friend, the singer Kate McGarrigle.
Singer-songwriter Simon Lynge, an Inuit originally from Greenland, opened the show with a brief set of trancelike folk-rock tunes. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he wove fragile lattices of melody with a voice that recalled those of Paul Simon and Paul McCartney.