Monday, November 11, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 566: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell

It has been a fun and eventful long weekend.  In addition to getting out for drinks with friends I attended a vintage fashion fair, a vinyl fair (where I bought two records).  Last night Sheila and I played Arkham Horror and successfully saved the world from an ancient horror (screw you, Bokrug!).  Today I took her – Sheila, not Bokrug – out on a photo shoot for a travelling skirt project she and her fellow fashion bloggers are up to.

The highlight the weekend was Saturday night, when we went and saw Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Richard Thompson perform at the Alix Goolden Hall.  I feel fortunate to have seen a living legend like Emmylou Harris perform live. In preparation for the show, I invoked Rule #5 (see sidebar), and here is the resulting review, followed by a review of the concert.

Disc 566 is…. Old Yellow Moon
Artist: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover?  Emmylou and Rodney share a moment on some old country road.  These two have known each other for decades and the affection they have for each other comes through in this picture and all the other pictures in the album sleeve as well.

How I Came To Know It:  I am a longtime Emmylou Harris fan, and this was just me buying her latest album when it came out in advance of seeing her in concert.  Concerts are usually more enjoyable when you know the music beforehand.

How It Stacks Up:  It is hard to stack up a collaboration album like this one.  I have ten of Emmylou’s solo albums, and two collaboration albums (this one and another called “All The Road Running” that she did with Mark Knopfler in 2006).  The two compilations are pretty equal, but I’ll put this one second, if only because I’m a bigger fan of Mark Knopfler than I am of Rodney Crowell.

Rating:  3 stars

“Old Yellow Moon” is “an album forty years in the making” as Emmylou herself said a number of times at the concert on Saturday.  Considering all the previous collaboration between her and Rodney Crowell, it is surprising that they didn’t do an album like this years ago.

Given that it took so long to finally do so, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the album has a very traditional feel.  These songs would be equally at home in the fifties and sixties as they do today (and in the case of the Roger Miller cover “Invitation to the Blues” they actually date from the fifties). The other songs have their origins in almost every decade since, all the way up to some modern compositions by Crowell and steel guitar player Hank DeVito.  Crowell and Harris give them all arrangements that are rooted in bluegrass and old Nashville country.

As ever, the best part of the record is Emmylou Harris’ voice.  Even at age 66 it is still a powerful instrument, with the signature quaver that has made her rightfully famous. Most of the time, she blends her talents with Rodney Crowell’s vocals, who is also no slouch.  Crowell has a very high register and the two of them make pretty harmonies together.  They cleverly leave a little space in between these harmonies, letting each voice’s distinctive quality stand out, while still complementing its counterpart.

This is particularly effective on their remake of the Kris Kristofferson’s “Chase the Feeling,” a song about drug/alcohol abuse.  Kristofferson has been one of my favourite songwriters for years, with brilliant lines like these:

“And you’re dealing with some demons
Who are driving you insane
And I’ve seen them drag you screaming
Down the hallways of your brain.

“You got loaded again
Ain’t you handsome when you’re high
Nothing matters
Chase the feeling ‘til you die.”

I enjoy Kristofferson’s gravelly original well enough, but the up-tempo version that Harris and Crowell perform on “Old Yellow Moon” captures the manic quality of addiction and makes the whole song unexpectedly more poignant.

Following immediately after such a brilliant song about addition, “Black Caffeine” stands out like a sore thumb.  Coffee addition is a real thing, but it isn’t what Kristofferson was writing about, and hearing about how you take your coffee immediately after witnessing demons dragging someone down the hallways of his mind falls flat.  Even if this song wasn’t so poorly placed, it just doesn’t stand up to the quality on the rest of the album. Fortunately, “Black Caffeine” is the only song on the album I didn’t enjoy at some level.

There are lots of good “old timey” up tempo songs on the record that are good (notably Crowell taking the lead on “Bluebird Wine” a song he wrote but that Harris originally made famous).  For all that, my favourites on the album are the slower and more somber songs, maybe because they let Emmylou’s vocals drip with hurt and heartache.  I love her singing the Patti Scialfa’s “Spanish Dancer” which lets her voice shine solo.  Not to be outdone, Crowell delivers a tearjerker of his own composition with “Open Season on My Heart” with an assist on the hurt-meter from Harris’ masterful vocals on the harmony.

Overall, “Old Yellow Moon” is relaxed and understated record by two master musicians who have a strong chemistry with each other that comes out clearly in their performances.  This isn’t an album to knock you out of your chair, but it has a quiet and refined beauty that settles and soothes, like a cup of warm tea on a cold winter’s night.
Best tracks:   Spanish Dancer, Open Season on My Heart, Chase the Feeling, Bluebird Wine, Old Yellow Moon

The Concert – November 9, 2013 at the Alix Goolden Hall

It is hard to go wrong seeing a show at the Alix Goolden Hall; an old Presbyterian Church converted to a concert hall.  The place has amazing acoustics and all the sound man has to do is not over-amplify the place.
The show was opened by Richard Thompson, who with well over twenty albums of his own, spanning more than forty years is a legend in his own right.  A big shout out to Sheila’s coworker Greg W. who put us on to Thompson a few weeks ago and helped me appreciate him in advance of seeing him live.

Thompson did not disappoint.  He did a set of about seven or eight songs, and all were excellent.  In terms of performance banter, he isn’t nearly as funny as he thinks he is, but he is personable and relaxed on stage.  More importantly, man can he play guitar. I sat in awe watching his fingers effortlessly move up and down the fretboard with precision and feeling.

Thompson was so good that after he finished the enthusiastic crowd gave him a standing ovation for over five minutes, clapping in unison and urging him to return for an encore.  Of course, it was Emmylou’s night so an encore was not in the cards, although he did come out and perform a couple songs with her and Crowell later.

Richard Thompson was a hard act to follow, but Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell were up to the task.  Eschewing any introductory banter, they launched right into some Gram Parsons classics, with “Return of the Grievous Angel” and “Wheels” both of which were brilliantly played.  Later they would play a tear jerker version of his classic “Love Hurts” as well.

It must be hard to choose a set list from forty years of music, but it was expertly done.  In addition to Gram Parson, they honoured Townes Van Zandt with understated versions of “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You” (the latter of which I am learning on guitar myself).  “Pancho and Lefty” is always great, although I could’ve used Emmylou’s mike being turned up just a little bit more because – duh.

I like a concert where the new album gets featured, and “Old Yellow Moon” was well represented.  They did six of the record’s twelve songs and although with the exception of “Bluebird Wine” they weren’t the six I would’ve chosen, they were still good.  Experienced artists always come alive a little bit more when they are doing new material – it only makes sense if you think about how often they’ve played their old material.

Kudos to the backup band as well, particularly lead guitar and keyboards, both of whom were amazing.  Long-standing acts like Emmylou Harris consistently find the best of the best when they tour, and it definitely showed.

The lead up to the encore was a bit busy, with an obvious effort being made to get the room amped up to end the show, but I forgave it all when the final song was “Boulder to Birmingham” – one of my all-time favourites.  If she’d played “Before Believing” I would probably have fainted with delight, so good thing she stopped there.

And guilty pleasure – the gentle dig and sly grin they both gave Lee Ann Womack’s version of Crowell’s “Ashes by Now” (“someone else had a hit with it a few years back”) before they lit into a version that – if you’ll pardon the extended metaphor – burned the pants off of the Womack Nu-Country effort.

And a final note of appreciation for the crowd, who were enthusiastic and present in the performance and not in any way a distraction to my experience.  There was a guy in front of me who with his Beatles-style bowl cut and turtleneck sweater reminded me of a sixties Bond villain.  He was a bit tall, but turned out to be as friendly and respectful as everyone else in the crowd, such that I forgave the partially lost sight line without a moment’s hesitation.

Shot of the old organ at the Alix Goolden Hall.

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