Emmylou Harris, touring with her Red Dirt Boys in support of "Hard Bargain," her first studio album in three years, played a tight, focused and seamless two-hour show at Pier Six Tuesday night.
"Hard Bargain" is the third album in Harris’s long career to include material mostly written by her. In interviews, she has talked about the autumnal nature of these late-life songs, which mark the passage of time and pause to reflect on exits – like that of the singer Kate McGarrigle – and entrances – a granddaughter, Prudence.
But Harris is not an emotional live performer, and never a confessional one. Instead, she translates emotion into pure musicianship and a clear joy in performing. For an audience, this makes for great listening pleasure, but, just once, though, you’d kind of like her to choke back a sob.
Harris introduces songs only occassionally. But at Pier Six, she took time to introduce the self-explanatory “My Name is Emmett Till" and to remember McGarrigle, her frequent collaborator who she remembered with the lovely “Darlin’ Kate.”
The best performances on Tuesday were the longest ones, when Harris and her virtuosic musicians kept balls floating on stage. An early pairing of her own “Red Dirt Girl” with Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” was Harris at her mesmerizing best.
“New Orleans” and “The Road,” both from Hard Bargain, and “O Evangeline” were two other hypnotic highlights.
Neither a career shift or a summation, "Hard Bargain" is not the kind of album that’s designed to attract new fans, and so the crowd on Tusday felt like a gathering of old friends.
For all of its athleticism and energetic musicianship, the evening was missing only the element of surprise, or of the audience being needed. That’s the downside when people are this good at what they do.
Six White Cadillacs
Red Dirt Girl
If I Needed You
Love and Happiness
My Name is Emmett Till
Goodnight Old World
Goin’ Back to Harlan
Bright Morning Star
The Ship on His Arm
Born to Run