Emmylou Harris, Barbican, London – review

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Daniel Lanois produced a solid run of albums that made singers of an older vintage – Bob Dylan, the Neville Brothers, Robbie Robertson – sound fresh again. Listening carefully was one of their peers, the country singer Emmylou Harris, and when she got the chance to choose a producer she instantly picked him. The resulting album, Wrecking Ball, was as good as she ever sounded. In the US, she remembered ruefully, some people “thought I’d been kidnapped by aliens. But I was kidnapped by a Canadian.” Now, 19 years later – “everyone does 20 years, but we couldn’t wait” – the album is being re-released and Harris and Lanois have reunited for a string of sold-out concerts.

From the opening notes of “Where Will I Be”, with the skittering drumbeat of a marching band refusing to yield and a plaintive Appalachian Gospel holler from Harris, the band ran through Wrecking Ball in order and in full. Its songs of redemption were all the more poignant for the passing of time; never more so than on Julie Miller’s “All My Tears”: Lanois’ angelic silvery voice is now a gruff growl, but he harmonised with Harris perfectly.

The die-hards who winced at the record first time round had a point: Lanois’ production made it less a country album, more a shimmering art-rock hybrid. The hokiest moment comes in his own composition “Blackhawk”, with a couplet about “raising kids and raisin’ Hell”. Elsewhere, Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” and Lucinda Williams’ “Sweet Old World” are stark on record, here blurred with Lanois’ guitar multiplying and reflecting back on itself. But Anna McGarrigle’s “Goin’ Back to Harlan” and Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” still shone, transcending genre.

After the closing notes of “Waltz Across Texas Tonight”, Harris paid tribute to Lanois’ own solo record, Acadie. Nonesuch’s re-release of Wrecking Ball has a second disc of outtakes that sounds in many ways as convincing as the actual album, including some from Acadie. Lanois had already played some of its French-Canadian waltz-time curiosities as part of an opening set; now Harris sang “Still Water” and then “The Maker”, majestic with squally echoes from Lanois and then an extended coda with harmonies from the band.

For encores she dug further back in her songbook, for unequivocal country songs: “From Boulder to Birmingham”, Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and then, as a tribute to the recently deceased Jesse Winchester, a delicate reading of “My Songbird”, just her and Lanois with an electric mandolin, the words ringing true and clear.


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