Increasingly ambitious Emmylou Harris visits the Golden State Theatre.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
By the time Emmylou Harris released her 1995 album Wrecking Ball, the acclaimed musician already had assembled a dizzying list of musical accomplishments. Harris’ backing vocals sweeten the songs and add to the lyrics’ emotional resonance on famed country rock artist Gram Parsons’ only two albums and Bob Dylan’s classic Desire. The female vocalist’s own albums were critical favorites, while her 1987 collaboration with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt titled Trio garnered two Grammy Awards and four country music hit singles.
But in 1995 she astounded critics and her own fans with Wrecking Ball. Produced by famed producer Daniel Lanois, Wrecking Ball proved that though she was already a music legend – known primarily to country and country rock fans – Harris could still reinvent herself. Wrecking Ball introduced her to the younger, alternative rock crowd.
While friends of mine with similar musical tastes had often raved about the album, it wasn’t until this past Friday that I heard Wrecking Ball for the first time. Like other popular releases produced by Lanois, including Willie Nelson’s Teatro and Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, Wrecking Ball immediately creates an insular, other-wordly listening experience where atmospheric songs are underlaid by busy percussion. It’s a cohesive set where one musical philosophy is applied to a wide range of songs.
It begins with the Lanois-penned “Where Will I Be.” The majestic but ultimately melancholy song features Harris asking where she will be “when that trumpet sounds” over Lanois’ fluid guitar work. Harris then stretches out the music and lyrics of Steve Earle’s “Goodbye” like taffy until the song is almost unrecognizable to those who know it.
The credits for a version of Lucinda Williams’ “Sweet Old World” reveal a dream team of musicians collaborating together – Williams on acoustic guitar, Lanois on multiple instruments, Neil Young on harmony vocals and harmonica, U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. on drums and Harris’ vocals soaring above it all. It’s the sound of an incredible batch of musicians fully boring into a solid song.
Other highlights include the album’s Young-authored title track and a version of Hendrix’s “May This Be Love.” “Wrecking Ball” features Young coming in lightly and lovingly on the chorus with Harris, while “May This Be Love” hears Harris and Lanois singing together over a haze of electric guitar and almost tribal-sounding drums.
Called “the biggest stretch of her career” by Entertainment Weekly, the Grammy-winning Wrecking Ball is seen by many as Harris’ masterpiece in a career marked by many high-water marks. Since then, Harris has completed other amazing and unexpected projects, including her solo works, her contribution to the O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? film soundtrack and her collaboration with guitarist Mark Knopfler on their 2006 album All the Roadrunning. But it was on Wrecking Ball where the already middle-aged artist seemed to issue her statement of intent for the rest of her career. On “Deeper Well,” which Harris co-wrote with Lanois and Dave Olney, she confides that she’s not content to simply coast on her past accomplishments – instead, she’s “lookin’ for the water from a deeper well.”
EMMYLOU HARRIS performs 8pm Friday, May 23, at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $45-$125. 372-3800.