Emmylou Harris (and friends) shine at Carnegie Hall

Music review

Spanning several days and moving from the newly remodeled lower-level Zankel Hall to Carnegie Hall’s main auditorium, country music singer and songwriter Emmylou Harris and friends delighted audiences in New York City on Oct. 21-25. Harris, a country and western star whose recording career has spanned three decades, was honored in an extraordinary set of performances, including a gala concert the final night.

Harris said in the Playbill that it was Bruce Springsteen’s historic “Nebraska” album in 1982 that changed her from simply being a singer of other people’s songs to a songwriter herself. “Nebraska” is Springsteen’s musical narrative of his drive across the country to find out the feelings of everyday people during the Reagan administration.

“Maybe I just felt like what I wanted to say was being said, written by other people,” said Harris. “I thought, ‘these are songwriters, and I’m the singer.’ And I was never unhappy in that role, even now. But when ‘Nebraska’ came out, I was knocked over by the writing.”

The rest has been history, a great and growing creative history of “Wrecking Ball” (1995), “Red Girl” (2000), and her new CD, “Falling From Grace.”

Prior to Harris’ sold-out concert on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall’s main auditorium, Harris curated smaller shows over several days with several of her friends: Kate and Ana McGarrigle; Steve Earle; Buddy and Julie Miller; and Patty Griffin.

This reviewer saw the Steve Earle performance.

The introductory remarks by Harris for Steve Earle also harkened back to the Reagan era. “I was on my way home from dinner in downtown Nashville in 1984. We decided to stop at the Bluebird Café to see who was playing. The sign said, ‘Steve Earle & the Dukes.’”

She listened to a few songs and came away thinking that they were “fantastic pieces of songwriting.” The notes continued that Harris and Earle have “performed together at benefit shows for progressive political causes.” This theme continued when she introduced Earle to the audience.

Harris said she admires Steve for his viewpoints and his courage. “Steve Earle isn’t afraid of nobody,” she said.

Earle performed solo on his acoustic guitar for about two hours. He started his set with “Ashes to Ashes” from his CD “Jerusalem.” The songs on this CD are distinguished by their sharp attack on the Bush administration’s militaristic policies around the world.

Earle said that he admires his fans. “They really understand the need for democracy and keeping asking questions. This is even more important as we approach the elections of next year. My fans understand the importance of dialogue.” Without belaboring the point, he said he recognized that many of his fans, especially those who have been with him for years, have had to adjust to the increasingly political and social action themes in his music.

He then sang the pro-coal miner song the “Mountain,” which includes the lyrics:

I was young on this mountain but now I am old

And I knew every holler, every cool swimmin’ hole

‘Til one night I lay down and woke up to find

That my childhood was over and I went down in the mine

Earle also sang “Christmas In Washington,” in which he calls upon Woody Guthrie to save us “from the mess we are in.” He said these songs show “who my heroes are”: Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks.

He took time out to sing his anti-death penalty song and talk to the audience about it.

All of Earle’s political statements, and his very touching love songs, like “Goodbye” (sung with Harris), were extremely well received and vocally powerful.

This was a great evening of tribute to Emmylou Harris from Steve Earle and the full house of fans.

– Eric Green (pww@pww.org)