SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — It's hard not to be disappointed when a blue-chip performer like Emmylou Harris releases her best album in years, then rolls into town and gives it short shrift in concert.
Then again, it's hard not to be completely taken with a concert by a blue-chip performer who, as Harris did Tuesday at the Coach House, arrives in high spirits, displays an easy sense of humor and fun, and gives a generous and satisfying accounting of her talent. Factor in the talents of Harris' Nash Ramblers--one of the best accompanying bands in all of pop--and it becomes hard to complain about much at all.
Harris opened with a musical prayer--her reading of the Stephen Foster hymn "Hard Times"--a fitting preamble for a concert designed to focus on material from her new release, "Cowgirl's Prayer."
But the nearly two-hour show that followed included just three songs from that album--and two of those were sassy or rocking numbers that go against the album's meditative, spiritually searching grain. Instead, Harris drew mainly from the string of 1970s albums that established her as one country music's most distinctive singers, and the one most likely to stretch the genre's borders rather than be confined by its conventions.
The show would have been more complete if Harris had been able to find a niche for such new songs as the crusty, spoken narrative "Jerusalem Tomorrow" (a real departure for her that reveals a continued interest in artistic stretching), the yearning, Cajun-accented Lucinda Williams composition, "Crescent City," and "Ballad of a Runaway Horse," a Leonard Cohen song that portrays a mystical dance between the sexes fraught with hungry approach and wary avoidance.
But Harris may not have been in the mood for anything quite so heavy.
She was relaxed from the start, announcing that "I've played this place so many times, I tried to think of a new way to start the show" as an introduction to the opening Foster hymn. The quips, many of them charmingly self-deprecatory, flowed lightly and regularly from then on.
Harris tattled on Rodney Crowell at one point, noting that "I Ain't Living Long Like This," a song he wrote during his '70s tenure in her band, was inspired not by his firsthand knowledge of the hard-living, jailbird side of life recounted in the song, but by his dog Banjo's run-ins with the animal-control department in Hermosa Beach.
Harris, who was in splendid voice, gave her own set of pedigreed players a very loose leash, and the five Ramblers used that freedom well with tag-team solos that won ovation after ovation.
Harris evidently doesn't have the sort of ego that bridles at the thought of accompanying players receiving much of the applause (given the Ramblers' contributions, "backing players" would be the wrong term).
Early on, soloists Sam Bush (mandolin and fiddle), Al Perkins (Dobro) and Jon Randall Stewart (acoustic guitar and ace high-harmony singing) frequently brought bluesy inflections to their playing. Later, Bush and Perkins played the blues outright, linking Little Feat's "Sailin' Shoes" with Robert Johnson's "Crossroads Blues" in a vibrant duet that was one of the show's highlights.
Harris certainly showed her fetching way with wistful or heartbroken material, but her sassy side surfaced early, with a boozy "Two More Bottles of Wine," and it was this side that dominated (at times, the band's output of harmony and instrumental sound came close to dominating Harris' voice; her own too-casual approach to enunciating lyrics didn't make it any easier to follow what she was singing--although her emotional drift was never obscure).
On "High Powered Love," an exuberant, freely rocking new song that by merit ought to restore Harris to the high reaches of the country singles charts, Perkins' charged Dobro licks sounded like close cousins to the slide guitar fills on the Stones' "Gimme Shelter." In a neat, if unintended connection, Harris' next number was "Sin City," a remarkable ballad by her mentor, the late Gram Parsons. The Stones were among those who were impressed and influenced by Parsons' merger of country tradition with an adventurous spirit of '60s rock.
Harris has carried on that crossing of musical borders--and, by implication, cultural ones as well. When she sweetly sang "Save the Last Dance for Me" near the end of the show, you had a 'Bama-born country queen weaving Mexican folk influences into a song that Brooklyn-bred Jews (Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman) wrote for an African-American R & B group (the Drifters). E Pluribus Unum may be a tattered concept these days in our civil life, but the results that Harris gets by applying it to her music speak well for the idea's fundamental virtue.
Opening act D.D. Wood arrived this year with an impressive folk- and country-tinged debut pop album, "Tuesdays Are Forever," that showed a good ear for melody and a plain-and-simple insistence on emotional forthrightness.