You'd have thought it would take singing lightning, burning bushes and other equally spectacular onstage offerings to compensate for the absence of the fabulous Hot Band behind Emmylou Harris. But though Harris has replaced her old band with a much softer, albeit no less driving, form of persuasion, no one in the packed audience for her first of two sold-out Coach House shows Thursday seemed to be pining for the past. Indeed, the show will very likely end up as one of this year's most enthralling Orange County performances.
Since the mid-'70s, Harris' Hot Band had been one of the most consistently exciting groups in country, featuring stellar players such as James Burton and Albert Lee (whose paired performance was a highlight of the Leo Fender Memorial Jam last week at UC Irvine) and future stars Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs. Harris disbanded the group two years ago after throat problems prompted her to seek a gentler setting for her voice.
Harris' new Nash Ramblers, which made its debut locally last year at the Celebrity Theatre, isn't just a sampling of Nashville's best acoustic players, but a true band, applying a unique feel and empathy to Harris' always-miraculous music. The Ramblers play with all the stunning technique and adventurous approach of the late, lamented New Grass Revival, but with the heart and passion that have always been Harris' trademarks.
The group does have a burning bush, of sorts, in former New Grass mandolin and fiddle player Sam Bush. Hearing his incendiary picking and sawing is a bit like watching the special effects in "Terminator 2": Bush is so adept at doing the impossible on his instruments that one soon takes the technique for granted and just enjoys the musical ride, which is as it should be.
The rest of the band was scarcely less impressive. West Coast country-rock vet Al Perkins (now a Nashvillian) provided shimmering Dobro and banjo, while 22-year-old wonder Jon Randall Stewart was equally impressive on his acoustic guitar work and high tenor vocals. And the rhythm section of upright bassist Roy Huskey Jr. (son of the famed country bassist) and drummer Larry Atamanuik (once of Seatrain) rocked like nobody's business, showing that a rhythm needn't be deafening to be compelling.
It didn't hurt at all to have Harris on stage, either. Since her early '70s work with Gram Parsons, Harris' pure soprano voice has always been directed by integrity, intelligence and, above all, emotion. Her throat problems clearly are long behind her; her singing Thursday was full-ranged and unfettered. And unlike all too many country singers, she used her guitar (a rose-inlaid Gibson J-200) not just as a prop, but as a driving force in the songs' rhythms.
Though Harris and the Nash Ramblers have a live album full of new songs due for release in January, they chiefly applied themselves to older material. But even such well-worn Harris coins as Buck Owens' "Together Again" (perhaps the saddest happy song in the world) and Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" sounded as if they'd been freshly minted.
The '70s-vintage "Beneath Still Waters" was one of several songs in the evening where Harris and the band conjured such an overpowering sense of mood that time seemed to stop. Her voice and their musical and vocal underpinning didn't just sing of yearning and loss, but seemed to embody those states. It says something about the human condition that the saddest music is also among the most beautiful allowed on this planet.
Harris mentioned that earlier that evening while eating dinner in a South County restaurant she'd been subjected to the TV show "Studs," and offered a "song to move a little psychic space away from" the show. The following chills-down-the-back a cappella choral "Call My Children" (from the upcoming live album) was indeed about as far from TV's vacuity and gloss as one can get. The musicians poured their harmonies into the song's tale of longing for sundered children, their voices distinct yet fused like light shining through a stained-glass window.
When not evoking such sad heavens, the band also raised a little hell. "The Price I Pay" flew through a breathtaking round of solos and spiraled through crashing turnarounds. Rodney Crowell's "Bluebird Wine" boasted a series of keening fiddle solos from Bush. The others left the stage as Bush and Perkins pumped out a heated mandolin/Dobro medley of Little Feat's "Sailing Shoes" and Robert Johnson's "Crossroads."
Other selections in the 20-song set included "The Wheels of Love," the only tune from last year's "Brand New Dance" album, and a trio of songs from her 1980 bluegrass album, "Roses in the Snow," including "The Boxer," the gospel "Green Pastures" and the title cut.
Harris' finest vocal came during the encore, on Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams." Though perhaps impossible to sing without a nod to Patsy Cline's definitive version, Harris infused it with her own brand of lyrical ache, rephrasing the lines to make them fresh.