Want to put together a great little country group? There’s hardly anything to it--if you’re Emmylou Harris, that is.
“I had a dream of an acoustic band, so I got the best there was,” Harris said proudly after her new five-man unit, the Nash Ramblers, had scorched its way through yet another fleet bluegrass number Saturday night at the Celebrity Theatre.
Of course, if the Ramblers had introduced Emmylou, they might have said much the same thing about her: “We got the best there was.”
Harris’ acoustic dream turned out to be sweet indeed. She may have unplugged the electric guitar and bass that had spots in her old Hot Band lineup, but that didn’t diminish the charge this new outfit gave her.
Harris often could be seen easing back and smiling at the licks that soloists Sam Bush, Al Perkins and Randy Stewart were laying down over the sure rhythms from Al Atamanuik’s brushed drums and Roy Huskey Jr.'s stand-up bass. And who wouldn’t play a little hotter and harder with an approving grin or bat of an eyebrow from the ultimate sweetheart of the rodeo?
In short, the Nash Ramblers gave Harris everything a singer could ask. The quintet laid a responsive, sensitive foundation for ballads and gospel songs, fired away freely on country rockers and bluegrass material and provided exquisite harmony vocals in all settings.
Bush, whose commendable but commercially under-appreciated band, New Grass Revival, broke up last year, was the star solo attraction on mandolin and fiddle. His mandolin runs broke the speed limit so often that one began to suspect his instrument came with a miniature, built-in fuzz buster. Intensity and focus complemented that fleetness, so that Bush’s repeated sprints never became tiresome. Perkins, a veteran of many a high-profile country-rock session, was understated, but effective on dobro. Guitarist Stewart also excelled on the speedy bluegrass breakdowns, but his lyrical solo chorus during “Sweet Dreams” was an especially sweet piece of playing.
Harris overcame the Celebrity’s iffy sound characteristics, which are overly bright and tending toward harshness, to show once again that she is as tasteful a singer as there is in country music, or any other branch of pop. Her choice of material was as sound as her choice of players, not a clinker in the bunch as she covered 20 songs ranging from Paul Simon (“The Boxer”) to Ricky Nelson (“Never Be Anyone Else but You,” introduced as her next single), to the boisterous swing of “How High the Moon.” While on the short side at 75 minutes, there was enough variety in the repertoire, and enough fine individual moments from song to song, to make the concert seem full.
In all modes, Harris achieved commanding presence without ever straining for effect. She used a country catch-in-the-voice and a strong but subtle vibrato quaver as means to color in the emotions embedded in a lyric, rather than for show. From her, performance on a high level is by now commonplace.
If this was Harris’ dream band, the Celebrity was less than a dream setting for it. The in-the-round setup, with rotating stage, works fine for singers who can relegate their bands to the pit and work all sides of the house. But in Harris’ show, one longed to key in on the singer and soloists to get the performance’s full impact. That’s hard to do while staring at their backs at least half the time. What this county really needs--until such time as the Orange County Performing Arts Center is ready to let us lowbrows through the gates--is a 2,000- to 3,000-seat proscenium theater.
Jamie O’Hara of the O’Kanes confessed near the end of a 38-minute acoustic opening set that it felt strange playing on a “rotisserie.” Maybe it was vertigo that caused O’Hara and his partner, Kieran Kane, to deliver the world’s most passive version of “That’s All Right, Mama.” Their performance was too polite and detached on a few other numbers, as well.
With Huskey on bass and Richard Kane on lead guitar and a technically malfunctioning fiddle, the O’Kanes managed eventually to stretch out with taut, edgy playing on “Bluegrass Blues” and “Oh, Darlin’ ” that made one wish they could have gone on longer. Harris joined O’Hara and Kane to harmonize on the duo’s beautiful love song, “When We’re Long, Long Gone,” but the Appalachian-style vocal arrangement was disappointing because it transposed and flattened the more pop-oriented recorded version’s lovely arc of melody.
Sadly, if understandably, the O’Kanes neglected to play anything from “Imagine That,” the 1990 album that was an artistic success but a commercial flop. Of the set’s eight songs, seven were from the 1986 debut album that marked their commercial high-water mark. It would be nice if the Crazy Horse could book this duo, a fine songwriting and harmony team, for a full-length club show that would allow them fully to showcase what they can do.