Published Apr 16, 2014The ticket stub read "Wrecking Ball tour - Emmylou Harris," but Daniel Lanois deserved equal billing on the night. Not only was he the producer of the album that was the core of this concert, but he was also the support act and then the star's chief musical foil.
Lanois' 50-minute set rather encapsulated the breadth of his work as a solo artist. He began alone onstage, delivering a haunting instrumental played on his beloved pedal steel. Once joined by his rhythm section of bassist Jim Wilson (also in Lanois' Black Dub project) and drummer Steven Nistor, he delved into his back catalogue with renditions of favourites "The Messenger" and "The Collection of Marie Claire" ("It was requested I play a real Canadian song," said Lanois of the bilingual gem). The trio also showcased Lanois' rock 'n roll side, dishing up some psychedelia-laced jamming that flirted just a little with self-indulgence and didn't exactly thrill the older folk fans in the capacity crowd. The sometimes abrasive edge to Lanois' tone kept things interesting, though. This was something of a hometown gig for the Hamiltonian (his brother and mother were in attendance), and he clearly felt at ease on the Massey stage.
As did the star of the evening, who paid tribute to "this grand old lady" of a venue then did it justice with a lovely performance. As advertised, it focused upon country-folk queen Harris' classic 1995 album, Wrecking Ball, played in its entirety. This now-popular and oft commerce-driven approach has become formulaic, but it was vindicated here by the fact that Wrecking Ball is one of the few genuinely seminal and pioneering records in its genre of the past two decades. It didn't just revitalize her career in a creative sense, but inspired a younger generation of Americana artists.
The record shone in its merger of Harris' gorgeous voice and Lanois' signature atmosphere-drenched production (and guitar work). Its core sound remained here, but some of the studio sonic embellishments were removed. For instance, on the album version, "Sweet Old World" features writer, Lucinda Williams, plus Lanois, Steve Earle, U2 drummer Larry Mullen and guitar aces Malcolm Burn and Richard Bennett. Done live, the more minimal version gave this gorgeous song more room to breathe, and it was a true show highlight.
This performance highlighted the consistent A-level songwriting on Wrecking Ball. With material from Williams, Neil Young (the title cut was another show highlight), Steve Earle, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Anna McGarrigle, Julie Miller, Gillian Welch, Lanois and Rodney Crowell, it'd be hard to go wrong, and Harris certainly did not.
This concert's stripped-dow-trio-plus-singer format reinforced what a masterful guitarist Lanois is. Playing without the aid of pedals, he still produced a full and richly evocative sound that again proved a perfect foil for Harris. The sweet purity of the '70s version of her voice has inevitably (at 67) become a mite weathered, just ever so slightly frayed around the edges. That just added gravitas, and she employed phrasing to convey emotion as skillfully as any jazz singer.
Some reviews of earlier shows criticized Harris for not talking enough, but she struck an ideal balance here. In praising her Canadian collaborators, she queried "Is Canadian content still a thing here?" and she spoke eloquently of her love of the work of Lanois and the McGarrigle Sisters, as well as her career crossroads at the time of Wrecking Ball.
The only suspense involved in the set's song selection was the non-Wrecking Ball choices. Given Harris' extensive discography, there's no shortage of material, but she chose masterfully. Two now-classics from debut Lanois album Acadie, "Still Water" and "The Maker," were reprised, followed by a simply sublime three-song encore that began with "Boulder To Birmingham," introduced by the silver-haired singer as "from a time when I was a brunette."
Inspired by Gram Parsons, the 1975 song is her best-ever composition, and still sends chills up the spine. Another long-time favourite, Townes van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" (recorded by Harris in 1976) came next, followed by a traditional folk-gospel tune sung a cappella by Harris, Lanois and Wilson. A fitting finale to a magical evening, it confirmed that the most emotionally eloquent instrument of all remains the human voice.