Gram Parsons has been dead since 1973, so we’re all 40 years late to the party of seeing Emmylou Harris sing with her ideal duet partner.
In 2013, Rodney Crowell will have to do. And Crowell, who sang with her at the Academy of Music on Tuesday night, and who has a new album with Harris called Old Yellow Moon - their first with equal billing though they’ve frequently worked together since the mid-70s – did just fine.
Not that that Emmylou doesn’t still carry the hard-to-compete-with ghost of Gram around. The first two songs she played with Crowell, backed by a fine five piece country band who at their best were nearly able to transform the 156 year old opera house (which to opener Richard Thompson appeared to be “like La Scala, only bigger”) were Parsons songs. “Return of the Grievous Angel” was rushed, a little too hurried, but “Wheels” settled in nicely.
The silver-haired 65 year old Harris is an iconic figure in cool country-rock, revered mostly for pairing her angelic voice in harmony with a long list of scruffier male singers, from Parsons to Bob Dylan to Bright Eyes. She’s also always been a formidable band leader, however, bringing Crowell into her 1970s Hot Band that also featured Ricky Skaggs. And at the Academy, Harris led the way, anchoring the hour and a half set with a voice that’s grown darker and taken on ballast over the years, heading “Earthbound,” to borrow a Crowell song title the 62 year old Texan sang lead on.
“Earthbound” was one of several tunes, a few too many, in fact, that ruminated on the passage of time, and the specter of mortality up around the bend. Matraca Berg’s treacly “Back When We Were Beautiful” and the fuzzy Old Yellow Moon title track were the chief offenders in a set that dragged in its middle passages.
Far more effective were songs Crowell wrote as a younger man that either take a moment to stare down the void, like the gut-punch of “’Til I Gain Control Again,” or hurdle forward trying to keep from falling apart, such as “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This.”
The latter was the highlight, in no small part because Thompson brought his Stratocaster out to play and wake up the bas relief bust of Mozart above the Academy’s proscenium stage. It was gentlemanly of Thompson to allow the band’s perfectly good guitarist Jedd Hughes to take the final solo, but it might have been more fun if the beret-wearing British axeman had asserted himself and squashed his counterpart like a bug.
The show came to close as it began, with a song that Harris had sung with Parsons in the early 1970s in its most indelible version, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts.” Harris called out for it as a surprise to her bandmates, describing it as the song that began “my love affair with really dark depressing sad songs than have no hope.” The impromptu duet with Crowell was achingly lovely, but never burned like a stove when it’s hot.
Thompson opened with an hour long set marked by scintillating musicianship, as he fronted a sort-of Celtic power trio with jazzman’s chops, assisted by bassist Taras Prodraniuk and drummer Michael Jerome.
He focused on songs from his excellent-as-always Buddy Miller-produced new album, Electric, that moved from the acoustic tenderness of “Saving The Best Stuff For You” to the belligerent paranoia of “Good Things Happen To Bad People.” (Sample lyric: “Mona Lisa, what a teaser/ What’s that strange cologne I’m smelling? You know more than you’re telling.”)
Thompson also made time for a couple of “those old favorites you’ve driven so far to hear,” as he dryly quipped. Most notably, he filled up the hall with a wall of solo acoustic sound on “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and led the house in a heartbreak singalong on a caterwauling “Tear Stained Letter.”
(Note: The excellent picture above of Thompson sitting in with the band was sent to me by a reader who wishes to remain anonymous, due to the hyper-vigilant cell phone policing of the red-jacketed staff of Academy ushers who patrolled the aisles of the theater on Tuesday as if the orchestra seating section was full of photo snapping career criminals.)