Emmylou Harris & Los Lobos Tour [Concert Review]

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Emmylou Harris & Los Lobos: Rose Music Center; Dayton, OH – Saturday, August 7, 2021

Emmylou Harris was singing alternative country before it was cool, long before it was called Americana. With 14 Grammys and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Harris’ early start singing harmony vocals for the likes of Gram Parsons (The Byrds, Flying Burrito Bros.) made her a go-to session singer on more country albums than anyone has time to name, and led to collaborations with Linda Ronstadt and Dollie Parton, Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), and Rodney Crowell. When T Bone Burnett produced a country roots revival with his soundtrack for the Coen Bros.’ film “O Brother Where Art Thou,” Harris made a major contribution, going on to participate in the concert tour and film, “Down From the Mountain,” and toured with Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller, who had been head guitarist in her backing band, Spyboy, in the late 90’s. In 2016, Harris was honored with a tribute concert, “The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris,” which was released as a CD/DVD, and featured the likes of Crowell, Miller, Griffin, Alison Krauss, Lucinda Williams, and Sheryl Crow. As such, the silver haired, golden throated singer had blessed the world with her music, as well as her political activism for issues like ending mountain-top mining, does a year benefit for a Landmine Free World, and animal rights. So, hearing her perform with her ace band, The Red Dirt Boys is like a visit with a living musical legend.

On Saturday night, the 74-year-old walked calmly to center stage, strapped on her big Gibson L-200 namesake acoustic guitar, on the mostly bare stage, surrounded only by her all male band and their instruments. Tonight, like most concerts with Harris, it’s always about the songs, and she immediately started playing the chords to one of her signature selections, “Here I Am.” The gentle ballad built and swelled, and as she would throughout the evening, Harris started playing the next song before the audience finished applauding, The Red Dirt Boys each falling in with her steady rhythmic chording, Eamon McLaughlin playing the melody to Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” on the mandolin, with Phil Madeira playing accordion and adding a harmony vocal. Then saying what the audience with suggesting with their warm applause, Harris greeted the over half full Rose Music Center, “Great to be out and playing music again, with an audience! So, welcome back.”

Next up was “Love and Happiness,” a song she’d originally recorded with Crowell, with Madeira moved to acoustic slide guitar to provide accents. As the applause lightened, she said the name of the song, then added, “but you know, I like those sad songs.” And to that end, she started “Making Believe,” a song made famous by Kittie Wells in 1955, McLaughlin’s violin playing the melody in harmony with Will Kimbrough’s electric guitar, while Harris sang the song’s cries of “oooh, oooh,” as if she meant it. Harris told the crowd that she doesn’t write a lot of songs, because her childhood was too happy to give her material to write about, a gift she was glad to receive from her loving parents. But she got inspired to write the title track of her 2000 album, “Red Dirt Girl,” as she was driving back and forth between Nashville and the studio in New Orleans, and seeing a sign for Meridian, Mississippi, started thinking of words that rhymed with “Meridian,” and came up with the story “about the life and death of a red dirt girl named Lillian.”

Her next song was another original, this time she said inspired by listening to a story on NPR, which she called “that bastion of liberal bias called the truth. And sadly everything that happens in this song really happened,” as she sang the story of “My Name Is Emmett Till,” the Jim Crow lynching victim that spawned civil rights activism in the late-50’s and 60’s. It’s performed as a funereal dirge, with the brooding feeling accentuated by the bowing of the upright bass of Chris Donohue and McLaughlin’s violin. And then flip that mood on its head she dove into “Raise The Dead,” a rollicking country song that references “Bill Monroe,” the bluegrass mandolin player that she’d originally recorded with Ronstadt. Here she gave the Boys in the band a little room to stretch, with Madeira on acoustic slide, McLaughlin back on mandolin, and some fine electric guitar from Kimbrough. Which naturally led into an old bluegrass Gospel number by Monroe, the arrangement Harris said she lifted from Marty Stuart, McLaughlin taking his mandolin for a fast run around the track, the Red Dirt Boys all leaning into those twangy vocals on “John… John… John the Baptist,” squealing a bit on the high notes just for fun.

Emmylou quieted things down next for a solo vocal with just the violin and the piano, but it’s not one I recognized but it was a gentle ballad, and again flipped the mood, with “Luxury Liner,” a rip roarin’, rollicking number with fast runs on the piano by Madeira, fiddle playing by McLaughlin, a rare solo on his Telecaster from Kimbrough and the rhythm section of Donohue and drummer Bryan Owings pushing everything toward the conclusion, with Harris proclaimed to the elated crowd, “I hope you’re having as much fun as I am.” Next, Harris led three of her boys in an a cappella Gospel quartet on “Calling My Children Home.” And then turned in a cover of James Taylor’s song about a blue collar “Millworker,” before turning to another Gospel song, this one by Ralph Stanley, “Green Pastures” backed only by mandolin and Donohue singing harmony. “Pancho & Lefty,” the beloved Townes Van Zandt classic that everyone covers, which again allowed the Red Dirt Boys to build to solid country rocker around the accordion and the mandolin, followed by another rowdy one, “Born to Run,” her song, not the one by Springsteen.

To introduce the next song, “Bang the Drum Slowly,” Harris told how she wrote it with the help of Guy Clark after her father died, telling the story of the chance meeting of her parents, and their mixed marriage (he was a Yankee from the north), acknowledging that he had died at 72 and  how weird it felt now she was older than he had been. The song was performed without electric guitar or drums, just the violin and the piano stops set to sound like strings with the bowed bass, then segued nicely into “Shores of White Sand,” with the full band and some acoustic slide guitar, followed by the more dramatic drums on “The Pearl,” with its repeated cries of “hallelujah.” A moving end to her set proper.

But as Harris turned to walk off with her band, she returned to the microphone, saying, “I had a senior moment, I forgot to introduce the band,” then realizing she didn’t need to leave the stage to play an encore, so told us this was going to be it, and led the band into “Evangeline,” a Robbie Robertson song first performed by The Band. Then saying, “There’s never too much butter, or too much salt, and there’s never too much accordion,” bringing out Josh Bata, who had played earlier with Los Lobos, to play the band out on a song she’d down with Crowell, “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” putting a fun zydeco shine on a great evening of music in the open air. Bata offered up more of his speedy virtuoso accordion soloing trading off with McLaughlin’s fiddle, to the entire crowds delight.

As Los Lobos came to the stage to open the night, left handed guitarist Cesar Rosas announced that his main guitar playing foil and the defacto leader of the band, David Hidalgo sent his apologies that he could not be with us for the evening, he’d flown home to be with his family around the birth of a grandchild. So how does a band handle not having their main guitar soloist, well, on this night Los Lobos leaned heavier on tried and true rock & roll numbers where Rosas sings lead, and everyone else just jams. They kicked things off with “Don’t Worry Baby,” the first song on their T Bone Burnett-produced major label debut, “How Will the Wolf Survive?,” with Rosas stepping into the role as bandleader, supported by Steve Berlin serving up a great solo on the alto sax. Sticking with old school rock & roll, the jumped right in to “Set Me Free (Rosalee),” which was written by Rosas and Burnett for that same album. This time, Berlin had gone deep on his baritone sax, and the band got solo support from Sammy Avila on Hammond organ, and Josh Bata sitting in on accordion in a fun flashy way on his solo.

They moved to “Cumbia Raza” next, with Rosas singing in Spanish, with Louis Perez playing a traditional acoustic Mexican instrument, a jarana, but it evolved into a loose jam set to the tune’s fun Latin beat. Returning to surer territory, Rosas played the opening to “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” another early number from the Burnett days. Then letting folk know their new album, “Native Sons,” had been out just two weeks, they played the first single, “Love Special Delivery,” a cover from the first East L.A. band to have a top ten radio hit, Thee Midniters. Things may have felt a bit uneasy for the band, but the crowd was responsive to the rock and roll, and seemed revved up by the extended soloing, so it made total sense to try on a blues, “Wicked Rain.”

On uneasy ground, Rosas pulled a familiar riff out of his hat, playing the opening to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” the classic rock track from The Temptations, but in short order they segued into the Santana hit, “Oye como va,” which while it felt familiar it was again, loose and jammy, and you could feel the piece stretched out like maybe they just wanted to kill some time, but the crowd seemed more than happy to go along for the ride as bassist Conrad Lozano and drummer Enrique Gonzalez took solos. Next Perez returned to his original position at the drums, as they played a Spanish language Tex Mex number, featuring the showy accordion playing of San Antonio native, Bata, which eventually turned as well into more of a blues vamp, with more singing in Spanish by Rosas. And then, Rosas played that familiar opening riff of “La Bamba,” the Ritchie Valens classic rock & roll number, and the crowd were on their feet, and all was right with the world.

Having seen Los Lobos play some utterly mesmerizing shows, where Hidalgo led them to great musical heights, matching classic guitar bands like the Allman Bros., with that definitive East L.A. mix of Latin roots music and the best of rock, it’s not hard to be sympathetic to the band soldiering on while their leader goes home to support his daughter, and welcome his new grandchild. It’s all good.

Brian Q. Newcomb
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