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The Good Neighborhood: Emmylou Harris review

There was serious sentiment some 16 years ago when the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts opened on UB’s Amherst Campus that it was going to steal touring talent from city venues, furthering the “giant sucking sound” of souls scurrying to the suburbs, to quote a phrase from the day.

Hopefully we can all now agree that such sentiment was nonsense. UBCFA has built a reputation for booking an eclectic array of acts that would likely pass over Western New York if not for a sub-2,000 seat venue built with pristine acoustics, comfortable seating, and a commitment to presenting performers who approach their craft as art before commerce. Case in point – velvet-voiced Americana queen Emmylou Harris, who played to a spellbound, near-packed house Wednesday night.

I can say with certainty that this show helps UBCFA make Western New York a more desirable place to be, having cut short a trip to Texas to hustle back in time for this show after my father stated with bucket-list determination his desire to see Harris perform.  On the flip side, I’ll grant Buffalo-vs-Burbs naysayers one point – if anyone was wondering why the Sportsmens Tavern in Black Rock was dark Wednesday night, owners Dwane & Denise Hall and seemingly every regular on and offstage at “The Honkiest, Tonkiest Beer Joint in Town” could be spotted in the crowd.   

Providence, RI-based bohemian indie folkers the Low Anthem opened the show with a serene half-hour set that was at times spiritual, others comical, and always compelling with the help of plainly delivered songs and constant instrument sharing/shifting. The quartet started by gathering around one mic at center stage to all sing “To Ohio,” a sparse and somber number from their breakout album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (Nonesuch) which they claimed was heard by Harris on NPR and led to their landing on ten dates of her tour, Buffalo being the second. Lead singer Ben Knox Miller strummed a simple folk line as upright bassist Jeff Prystowsky bowed beneath, Mat Davidson plucked pensively on banjo, and Jocie Adams took to tippy toes to caress clarinet notes. The yearning, spiritual undertones of “She sang bless your soul as you crossed that line to Ohio” were the first of many throughout the evening, and had added meaning for one who’d done so earlier in the day in a cannonball run to catch the show.

As the four turned to different corners of the stage, Miller sat at a 95 year-old pedal pump organ, which legend says was used by an Army chaplain in France during World War I – Happy Veterans Day – and which all four played at some point in the set. One got the idea that they all met at an estate sale, standing around this incredible organ and taking turns playing it, pledging to build a band around its beauty. With Davidson bowing a saw, Miller delivered “To the Ghosts that Write History Books” from the organ, guitar behind his back and harmonica hoisted to his mouth.

The instrumentation shifts then kicked in as Miller plugged in an electric guitar, Prystowsky sat at a drum kit, Adams replaced him with an electric bass, and Davidson took his turn on the organ for a electric segment that while still methodical, saw Miller singing with a more forceful, nasal air that for a moment confused as to who was singing lead. Saying in between songs that they were trying out new songs and instrumentations for the first time live, he explained, “You can’t try ’em out in practice ’cause you don’t learn anything.”

Adams’ mumbled backup vocals while on bass became a rebel yell as she took her turn on the organ, Davidson working the bass as they all sung a soon-to-be anthem for the unkempt with a chorus that began, “Hey all you hippies/You got a bad name,” and referenced Ronald Reagan coming down from the Hollywood Hills to clean house.

Miller introduced their final number by inviting the audience to, at the end of the song, call the person next to them on their cell phone and put it on speaker – that’s right, encouraging folks to use their phones at a concert. If the notion wasn’t amusing enough, he opened the tune with the line, “It’s a sad and guilty feeling/since I didn’t take out your ashes,” drawing a chuckle from the crowd. As Adams tip-toed another clarinet line – she eventually made her way to the crotales, aka antique cymbals – Miller pulled out two phones and initiated a haunting feedback effect that many in the pin-drop crowd were able to mimic, which he delighted in while pacing the stage searching for new sounds around the band’s near-silent hum.

In short, the Low Anthem is unique, at once vintage and fresh, and well on their way to the forefront of new bohemian Americana with the blessing of the sweetheart of the rodeo herself. Or you could go by Pops Gallivan’s review:

Pops – “They look like they smell.”

Son – “But you dug it, right?”

Pops – “Absolutely – the music was terrific. They just look like strange people.”

Son – “Some of the greatest musicians are the strangest people.”

Pops – “Oh I learned that a long time ago – I don’t hold it against ’em.”

Backed by a stable of Red Dirt Boys which seemed able to cook but tasked solely with supporting one of Americana’s defining and ubiquitous voices, Harris traveled from folk and country to gospel and bluegrass and into her own woven sound throughout a set of 20+ songs, announcing her arrival with “Here I Am,” the self-penned opening cut from her 20th album, 2003’s Stumbling Into Grace (Nonesuch). One could interpret that the tune pined for the paradise lost in the 1973 overdose death of her musical and rumored romantic soulmate Gram Parsons – “I am standing by the river/I will be standing here forever/Though you’re on the other side/My face you still can see/Why won’t you look at me/Here l am.” While she proved more than just a voice by playing acoustic guitar nearly throughout and without the support of a second guitarist, her magic lies that voice – instantly recognizable, inimitable, from goosebump-inducing command to hushed whisper in the same phrase, still strong and with a self-defined discipline at the age of 63.

As keyboardist Phil Madeira switched to accordion, singing backup vocals with fiddler/mandolineer Rickie Simpkins and bassist Chris Donahue, she told of being an “Orphan Girl” and “Red Dirt Girl” before reaching back to 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl for a “country chestnut” in the Dallas Frazier-penned “Beneath Still Waters,” which earned Harris a #1 hit and an applause from the crowd – the classic country kind of applause that stems from the first line of the song and stops before the second.

Staying on the same album that saw her stray from Parsons’ Cosmic American country-rock shadow and back to the basics with the Rodney Crowell-written “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” – which was originally cut with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt for an ill-fated trio record – Harris’ angelic singing while stringing words together to the point of incoherence recalled a lyric from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James from “The Way That He Sings” –

“It’s just the way that [s]he sings/Not the words that [s]he says, or the band”

Harris’ voice is one that needs neither words nor band to stir the soul.

She can write ’em too, as she did with the help of folk heroines Kate and Anna McGarrigle in the brilliant “Sailing Around the Room,” which she described with a smile as “a positive song about death.” While she certainly has a penchant for dark subject matter, that doesn’t make the show a downer, as evidenced by a spiritual mini-set that included a romp on bluegrass inventor Bill Monroe’s “Get Up John” and a transcendent take of the gospel traditional “If I Be Lifted Up,” on which drummer Brian Owens was brought forward to sing for just the second time – “We’re a National League band,” Harris joked in reference to her designated hitter taking the mic to sing pitch-perfect bass. “If you play an instrument – even the drums – you mu
st sing.”

Another number penned with the McGarrigles proved the point to which Harris had the crowd spellbound – after she sang, “The flannel shirt I wore to keep me from the cold/When we drove from Boston all the way to Buffalo,” there wasn’t even one clap or shout. Since when do Buffalonians not get excited at any outsider’s reference to us? 

One might argue that the crowd was more subdued than spellbound, with evidence that Madeira’s slide acoustic guitar solo in “Take That Ride” marked the first audience applause for a mid-song instrumental, but this is more a reflection of the style they set forth – no showboating or climbing to crescendo, simply let Harris’ voice do the driving and be the four wheels to take the song where she steers it.

And oh, the places they did go, from Lucinda Williams’ heart-wrenching “Sweet Old World,” to the haunting imagery of Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand,” to a nearly a cappella rendition of the traditional “Calling My Children Home” in which Harris soared with strict discipline in leading the vocal quartet.

It was a show only Emmylou Harris could deliver, and the audience lapped it up like the rescue dogs she brought out at the encore to plug her pet cause, Bonaparte’s Retreat. It’s a good thing she hasn’t been permanently pressed into the Nashville machine, leaving her voice free to sing as she pleases and perform before a hushed crowd of true believers.

About Seamus Gallivan and The Good Neighborhood: The Good Neighborhood is a Buffalo-based company that pairs performers
with common causes to create Gatherings for the Common Good.

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