Emmylou Harris: Bowery Ballroom 26 April 2011

When there’s an opportunity to see Emmylou Harris in a small venue, you jump at the chance. Hell, the woman is legend – she even has two official websites – the official one and the the comprehensive (supposedly former but still current) official one. But sometimes you have to ask yourself if there’s a catch and there was one – she performed her new cd of her originals from start to finish. Emmylou is one of the best song interpreters today and what she did with “Imagine” in the encore may be proof that she is the best. But, for a few exceptions, songwriting was never her strong suit and Tuesday night’s performance made that all too clear.

Opening act was Josh Ritter. Ritter was the headliner at one of the Governor’s Island shows last summer and he didn’t impress me then and he still didn’t. And it’s not really his fault. His voice is pleasant and the songwriting is good. He was alone on stage with his acoustic guitar and was very nervous and excited about opening for Emmylou and the audience was totally on his side and respectful. We laughed when we should have laughed and we were quiet when we needed to be quiet. Ritter lacks a certain something – charisma? – and he just does not move me.

Now Emmylou can definitely move me. Anyone who has heard her duets or harmonies with countless other performers (including but not limited to Gram Parsons, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Roy Orbison, Shawn Colvin, and Patty Griffin) and her interpretations of songs by Neil Young, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, The Louvin Brothers, The Drifters, Willie Nelson, The Carter Family, Kitty Wells, Merle Haggard, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and so many others know how much Emmylou can move you. And I’ve discovered that men of a certain age find her irresistible – especially the graying hair, which is now long and snow white. I was impressed with her toned upper arms – the woman has 10 years on me and looks great.

On stage with Emmylou was Hard Bargin producer Jay Joyce on electric guitar and Giles Reeves on snare and synthesizer. Reeves and Joyce also played all the instruments on the new album. Except for two covers (one by Ron Sexsmith and the other by Joyce) the cd is made up of Emmylou originals. Her songwriting just does not come up to the level of her beautiful voice, the outstanding supporting musicians, or the subject matter of the songs (for instance: Emmett Till, Kate McGarrigle, rescued dogs).

I wanted to love every minute of the show but the only time everything worked for me was for the encore when they played “Imagine,” which is not on the album but was something they’d performed for a charity benefit a while ago.

By Carene Lydia Lopez