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Monday, 18 March 2013 14:52

Concert review: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Richard Thompson provide pitch-perfect performance at Peabody, Sunday, March 17

Concert review: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Richard Thompson provide pitch-perfect performance at Peabody, Sunday, March 17 photo by Kris Embry
Written by Kris Embry

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell took the Peabody Opera House stage on Sunday night, proving to an appreciative St. Louis audience that authentic country music is indeed still alive and well.

Harris and Crowell are longtime friends and collaborators, having known each other since the mid-70s when Crowell was a member of Harris' Hot Band. Both are veteran country music performers, and at this point in their careers they've nothing more to prove, either to an audience or to one another, than that they are still capable of making great music together.

With a five-piece backing band behind them, they opened the show with confidence, launching into "Grievous Angel," a song penned by another of Harris' former singing partners, the late Gram Parsons. From there, the band ran through a set of over 20 songs covering a lot of musical territory -- from songs Harris and Crowell have co-written together to songs written by a variety of songwriters, including several songs the duo recorded for their new album "Old Yellow Moon."

Harris and Crowell's friendship and ease with one another was readily apparent throughout the evening, both in their relaxed conversations between songs and in their playing and singing. They performed "Tulsa Queen" a song they co-wrote and which Harris recorded in 1977, and also "Bluebird Wine," a song written by Crowell and a tune Harris said was one of the first songs she ever heard from him. "When I heard the demo of this song, I knew he had the right stuff," she told the audience. Of course, it's obvious that both performers have the right stuff; Harris has won 12 Grammys and Crowell is a multi-Grammy award winning artist, as well.

The band kept a strong country groove going behind them, with a lot of pedal steel and occasional accordion, and both Crowell and Harris played acoustic guitars throughout, although Harris occasionally set hers down to concentrate on singing. In a show filled with high points, there were still some standout tunes such as "Back When We Were Beautiful" by Matraca Berg and "Chase the Feeling," written by Kris Kristofferson, both of which appear on "Old Yellow Moon."

Despite the upbeat feel of the show, both artists commented on how many sad songs they play together or have recorded over the years. In fact, after playing the Roger Miller tune "Invitation to the Blues," Crowell referred to the song as "miserable with a beat." As if to drive that point home, when the band returned to the stage for a two song encore they played "If I Could Only Win Your Love" and then closed the show with the Boudleaux Bryant penned classic "Love Hurts." Originally recorded by the Everly Brothers, Harris also recorded the song with Gram Parsons in the 70s, although the song is perhaps best known for a 1975 version by the band Nazareth. Repetition of that classic rock staple has perhaps lessened its impact, but it remains one of the great heartbreak songs of all time. Just listen closely to that third verse for a reminder of its heartaching greatness.

As if that weren't show enough, the opening act alone was worth the price of admission: Richard Thompson and his Electric Trio. Thompson is, of course, a renowned singer-songwriter in his own right, and quite simply one of the best guitarists around. Currently touring in support of his latest record "Electric," Thompson, along with drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk (both of whom contribute back up vocals), played a short but strong set covering some of his best known songs including "Keep Your Distance," "Sally B," and "Tear Stained Letter." When they played "Good Things Happen to Bad People" Thompson remarked that he's seen it happen. "I wouldn't sing it if it wasn't true," he said.

He also performed a solo acoustic version of what is perhaps his best known song, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Thompson's prowess as a player is obvious, but he is never ostentatious, and his musical strength is always used in the service of the song. An effortlessly fluid guitar player, several of the songs led to extended leads and jams with his band. His set was truly a joy to watch, and it was obvious there were many audience members who came primarily to hear Thompson.

Overall, both Thompson and Harris and Crowell performed a wonderful show. Unfortunately, the first part of Harris and Crowell's set was plagued by a poor house mix, which made the vocals difficult discern. But once the mix was resolved, the acoustics and intimacy of the venue made for an enjoyable evening. Of course, a critic's job in reviewing a show like this lies in the difficulty of conveying the intangible qualities of live music. So perhaps the best review of the whole show could be summed up simply by what an audience member was heard saying about halfway through the show. As the band finished playing the classic Townes Van Zandt song "Pancho and Lefty" someone said aloud, "That was so good." 

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