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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Hammersmith Apollo, London, September 14th 2008
I don’t think country fans get out enough. Take the party sitting in our wonderful seats at the packed Hammersmith Apollo – honestly oblivious to the fact that ticket numbers actually mean anything, sitting there comfortably with spam and sandwich-spread sandwiches packed neatly in foil, and a flask of tea, milk on the side in an old cough-mixture bottle. Very homely, and given the way they wolfed it all down, very hungry. Then, judging by the reception they gave to support act Kimmie Rhodes, not only hungry for British haute cuisine but also for anyone with a Texan twang and a tragic tale of woe to sing. Spam
Not that Kimmie, with the assistance of her partner on bass and son on guitar, wasn’t anything but good, it’s just that she wasn’t quite that good. So it was hardly surprising that after the interval (“Do you think there’s a bar …?”) they greeted Emmylou Harris with something pretty close to a standing ovation, which was repeated at the end of her first song, ‘Here I am’, from her 2003 album Stumble Into Grace. They simply loved her to death for the whole night, which was just as well. Because she was indeed fantastic, and they were, after all, sitting in our seats.
Emmylou Harris
I was trying to think if any other country singer sings with quite the same emotional intensity as Ms Harris.
She has a voice that plucks right at the strings of the heart; sorrow, guilt, pain, regret and lost love all echo from the sound and intonation of her singing, and that’s before the almost universally depressing lyrics come into play. There’s no room for funny stuff here – it’s unremitting hardcore country blues, without let up, all night. “Here I am” is pretty heavy stuff, but nothing compared with ‘Broken man’s lament’ from her excellent new album “All I intended to be”. And that pales besides Merle Haggard’s ‘Kern River’ – “This is my favourite Merle Haggard song, just because it’s so sad”. She’s not joking. But this is country music at its most engaging, not least because Ms Harris is supported by a band of the very highest quality, the Red Dirt Boys, named in homage to Oklahoma’s particular genre of country music. Bryan Owings and Chris Donohue, both from Buddy Miller’s band, are on drums and bass. On keyboards and accordion, composer and producer Phil Madeira, on fiddles, mandolin and electrifying harmonies Virginian Bluegrass prodigy Ricky Simpkins, and on guitars Canadian singer-songwriter Colin Linden. Emmylou Harris
I can’t tell you just how good these guys were – Linden in particular dragging every last ounce of emotion from some sometimes spectacularly simple guitar playing – take the guitar part on ‘Broken man’s lament’ – which adds only greater piquancy to Ms Harris’s vocals.
Emmylou Harris
As you might have guessed by now, it was pretty good. Twenty-three songs, including almost all of the new album, and materials from her back catalogue that went as far back as her collaboration with Gram Parsons on ‘Return of the grievous angel’. And throughout, Ms Harris’s voice, though sometimes slightly husky, was as true as a bell, no more so than on the a capella ‘Bright morning stars’, with Simpkins, Donoghue and Linden in harmony. And having finished the main set with ‘Get up John’ she returned to encore with ‘Together again’ and finally the Oakridge Boys’ ‘Leaving Louisiana in the broad daylight’. Ending with lyrics like this – “Mary took to running with a travelin' man, left her momma crying with her head in her hands, such a sad case, so broken hearted …” shows just what I mean by unremitting. But that’s not the point – it was a privilege to witness a performance of this calibre from a performer who was unstinting in the amount of effort and emotion that she shared with us. And that’s what we agreed with our ill-seated neighbours who were in a state of near ecstasy when we left, although that might also have been due to the two bags of assorted toffees that they’d managed to eat during the show. Comfort food, I suppose. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)
Listen: Emmylou Harris' MySpace page

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