Harris, Crowell sing of time gone by

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, here performing in Boston last week, have a new album, "Old Yellow Moon."
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, here performing in Boston last week, have a new album, "Old Yellow Moon." (MATTHEW J. LEE / Boston Globe)
Posted: March 28, 2013

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, did just fine. He has a new album with Harris called Old Yellow Moon - their first with equal billing, although they've frequently worked together since the mid-'70s.

Not that Harris doesn't still carry the hard-to-compete-with ghost of Parsons around. The first two songs she played with Crowell were Parsons songs. She and Crowell were 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 seemed "like La Scala, only bigger"). "Return of the Grievous Angel" was 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 always been a formidable bandleader, however, bringing Crowell into her 1970s Hot Band, which also featured Ricky Skaggs.

And at the Academy, Harris again 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 on which the 62-year-old Texan sang lead.

"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. Such songs either take a moment to stare down the void, as in the gut-punch of " 'Til I Gain Control Again," or hurtle 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 a close as it began, with a song Harris sang 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 that have no hope." The impromptu duet with Crowell was achingly lovely, but it 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 Prodaniuk 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."

Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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