Emmylou Harris is possessed of an extraordinary voice that demands extraordinary accompaniment. It’s not that it can’t carry a bad tune, lift a clumsy melody or elevate an average band, mind you; put to the test, it probably could, and with remarkable grace. But to saddle so rare a voice with less than its due would be wrong, akin to artistic sacrilege. Thankfully, throughout her nearly thirty-year career Harris has chosen her songs and her players with extreme care, covering writers like Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell and assembling bands loaded with exemplary musicians like her legendary Hot Band, the Nash Ramblers and her latest — and certainly most eclectic — outfit, Spyboy.
At her intimate performance Tuesday night at New York’s Joe’s Pub — the second of a three-night stand — Harris relied on Spyboy to stir up the twilit, watery soundscape she first charted on her Grammy winning 1995 album, Wrecking Ball. Drummer Brian Blade and bassist Tony Hall, both veterans of the Daniel Lanois-produced sessions for that album, shaped, charmed and teased the set’s snaky rhythms, while guitarist Buddy Miller countered them with warm, liquid tones and electrifying, ringing leads. Miller also provided the high, country harmonies that anchored Harris’ ethereal, otherworldly voice. Combined, the disparate elements fused into a fluid, organic hybrid of spacey honky-tonk, Memphis soul and spooky shades of the Crescent City.
Spyboy, of course, is hardly new to fans of Harris — she’s been touring with the group (albeit with original bassist Daryl Johnson) for half a decade now, and released a live album named after the band two years ago. What was new for these shows, a teaser for a theater tour to kick off next month, were Harris’ songs from Red Dirt Girl, her first album of mostly self-written material since 1985’s The Ballad of Sally Rose. Opening, like the album, with the metaphorical “The Pearl,” on which she sang of dragons, desperation and Galilee, followed by the boiling, anguished sexual storm of “I Don’t Wanna Talk About it Now” (“I’d be drawn and quartered/If I could keep you in my bed”), Harris quickly established that the focus of the evening would be on the new material, her material. It was a risky gamble, given the caliber of songs she’s associated with, but Harris the writer measured up admirably to Harris the singer, her delicately haunting melodies and lyrics displaying a poetic grace worthy of her voice.
Harris announced that her mother was in attendance, perhaps inspiring the night’s recurring theme of songs touching on parent/child relationships. Her own “My Baby Needs a Shepherd” was a mother’s prayer for her children’s safety in the world, while “Calling My Children Home,” a cover, was a prayer just to get them back. “Hour of Gold,” which carried the evocative image of a lover’s face imprinted on another’s heart “like some Shroud of Turin,” was dedicated to her parent’s marriage. Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl,” one of Wrecking Ball‘s finest moments, received as enthusiastic a response from the audience (which included David Byrne and Jill Cunniff of Luscious Jackson) as “Love Hurts,” a song Harris introduced as one she did “when I was still a brunette . . . and before I had my teeth fixed.” The highpoint of the set, however, came with “Bang the Drum Slowly,” a song Harris wrote with Guy Clark about her late father. Harris performed the song solo, and when she sang verses like “I meant to ask you how you lived what you believed/With nothing but your heart up your sleeve/And if you ever really were deceived/By the likes of me,” her silvery voice escaped her momentarily, leaving her with only a breathless whisper that conveyed worlds of love and loss.
The set would never get more beautiful than that rare moment of vulnerability, but the new songs — “Red Dirt Girl,” a heart-breaking tale of unrealized dreams, “Michelangelo” and “My Antonia,” a duet with Miller (a more than capable sub for Dave Matthews who sings backup on the album) — each offered up their own transcendent thrills. And though the evening ended with a fittingly haunting encore of Steve Earle’s “Goodbye,” the set-closing, Miller-led rave-up through the Flying Burrito Bros.’ retro-country chestnut “Wheels” proved that Spyboy — and Harris — remain just as comfortable and vital outside the spectral realm.