Emmylou Harris and the Winspear Opera House – it could have been the perfect marriage of words and music.
Harris has one of the most distinctive voices in music today. When she steps up to the microphone to sing “Orphan Girl” or a cover of a Townes Van Zandt tune, there is no doubt who’s in control. Her clear, spiritual, plaintive sound can move even the hardest heart.
The Winspear is one of the most acoustically perfect spaces on the planet. You can hear a stage whisper up in the fourth tier. Without amplification.
So why did the people who stage these events decide to go all electronic for Harris’ gig Thursday night?
I understand the need for mikes and speakers, but the hall looked like a Rolling Stones show with two sets of speakers stacked three high in front of the stage and a plethora of black boxes on the stage itself.
Harris, 64, opened with “Six Cadillacs,” a rollicking look back on the life of a honky tonk musician trying to make it on the road and then Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl.” Not that I heard any of the lyrics. I caught a word here and there, but the over-amped noise coming from The Red Dirt Boys (Will Kimbrough on guitar, Phil Madiera on keyboards, guitar and accordian, Bryan Owings on drums, Chris Donohue on bass, and Rickie Simpkins on fiddle, mandolin and guitar), Harris’ 5-piece back up band, swamped the Nashville songbird’s vocals.
And so it continued through most of a 2-hour set that, under different circumstances, could have been an intimate night of great music, performed by one of the industry’s best. Instead, the audience got only a few glimpses into the genius that is Emmylou Harris.
The first break in the cacophony was “Michelangelo,” a song that Harris said came to her in a dream. Finally, the focus was on Harris’ beautiful voice and her unparalleled ability to deliver a lyric.
Harris released a new CD – “Hard Bargain” – on April 26 and introduced the Winspear crowd to some new songs, including “Darling Kate,” a lovely tribute to fellow songwriter Kate McGarrigle who lost a long battle with cancer in 2010, and “Big Black Dog,” about the pet she adopted from a Nashville animal shelter.
The message in “The Road,” Harris’ tribute to her mentor Graham Parsons, was obscured by the band, who bled all over the lyrics. It’s a pity, because the story she tells is both tender and bittersweet.
A moment of sanity came when Harris and guitarist Kimbrough (who has produced records for Rodney Crowell and who wrote “Nobody from Nowhere,” recorded by Jimmy Buffett in 2009) covered Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” By the reaction of the crowd, it was a highlight for them, too.
Harris stunned the crowd with “Emmett Till,” a haunting first person telling of the young black boy who was murdered and thrown in the river in Mississippi in 1955 after speaking to a white woman. Harris’ lonesome sound and Till’s tragic story came together in a moment of pure magic that I’ll not soon forget.
During the encore, Harris covered “Pancho and Lefty,” another Van Zandt tune. The band played, too, but this time the sound was what it is supposed to be ... backup not overload. Wrenching lyrics, mournful music and a voice sent from heaven made for the evening’s most perfect moment.
Although she had some difficulty reaching a few higher notes in the first couple of songs, once her voice warmed up, Harris was near perfection.
Maybe the next time she visits Dallas, she’ll pick a room more suited to multiple speakers and amplifiers ... or better yet, she’ll return to the Winspear for an acoustic gig.
For more on Emmylou Harris, visit www.emmylouharris.com
Editor's note: The critics from The Dallas Morning News, The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Dallas Observer or The Dallas Voice did not mention sound issues in their reviews. The Dallas Voice writer mentioned people going in and out during the performance, which was an annoyance, but no one mentioned the muddy sound. Maybe their seats were in a better spot in the hall.
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