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Monday, May 26, 2014

World

Country queen Emmylou Harris showcases ground-breaking "Wrecking Ball" 19 years on

Reuters | Monday, May 26, 2014

Country queen Emmylou Harris.

LONDON - When Nashville queen Emmylou Harris brought out her "Wrecking Ball" album in 1995 "more than a few people thought I'd been abducted by aliens", the singer told a London audience on Sunday night. "I'd actually been abducted by a French-Canadian," she said.

Nineteen years later, the Grammy-winning album is considered a masterpiece and Harris is playing it in its entirety in a short tour to mark the release of a remastered version.

Accompanying her is that French-Canadian, Daniel Lanois, the producer who gave "Wrecking Ball" its distinctive sound.

With her long silver hair, cowboy boots, grey chiffon dress and sequinned waistcoat, Harris cut a striking figure on the Barbican stage. The 65-year-old's voice, always a thing of beauty, was as clear and strong as ever.

The audience was enthralled from the start as she delivered Neil Young's title song and hits by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and other great North American song-writers in the album's original sequence.

When "Wrecking Ball" first came out, it both confounded and delighted fans.

Harris had first come to attention as Gram Parsons' singing partner in the early 1970s. Following his death of a drug overdose, she established herself as a highly respected Nashville artist with a string of country albums such as "Pieces of the Sky" and lent her voice to albums by Dylan, Young and others. But by the mid-1990s, she was treading water.

On Sunday, she recalled how she had been intrigued by Lanois' work on Dylan's "Oh Mercy " album, contacted him and "we found ourselves in my sitting room in Nashville singing Jimi Hendrix songs".

Lanois had made his name producing the likes of rockers U2 and Peter Gabriel. With its muffled, martial drums, shimmering guitars, ethereal vocals and haunted, melancholy atmosphere, "Wrecking Ball" opened up a new landscape a long way from the country template. U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. was among the musicians on the album, as were several of the songwriters. Rolling Stone called it "otherworldly".

Shunned by the Nashville establishment, it did fit in with the emerging alternative country scene and introduced Harris to a new generation. It also bridged the gap by including songs from younger writers such as Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch.

Harris recalled that Williams - now a star in her own right - was her neighbour in Nashville and would come to her house to borrow picks and capos. Williams' wistful "Sweet Old World" was one of the highlights of Sunday night's set.

Harris also delivered a stunning version of Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" - one of his greatest songs from a troubled period of his career. "Where does he pull this stuff from?" she wondered aloud.

Introducing "Goin' Back to Harlan", Harris paid tribute to her friends the French-Canadian sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle, who, she said, made "some of the most beautiful music ever". Kate died in 2010.

The band of guitarist Lanois, drummer Steven Nistor and bassist Jim Wilson, with Harris herself playing acoustic guitar, recreated the album's atmospheric sound while adding an extra dash of dynamism.

For an encore, she treated the audience to a handful of old favourites, including "Boulder to Birmingham", her lament for Parsons, and Townes Van Zandt's border ballad "Pancho and Lefty", before finishing with a poignant "Songbird", written by Jesse Winchester, who died last month.

Since "Wrecking Ball" ushered in a new era for her, Harris has enjoyed continued success and acclaim, emerging as a songwriter in her own right and collaborating with artists such as Elvis Costello and Mark Knopfler.

She added to her haul of Grammys with last year's "Old Yellow Moon," a duet album with Rodney Crowell. But Sunday's show was a reminder that "Wrecking Ball" remains her boldest and most intriguing work.

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