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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Emmylou Harris plays safe

Usually a risk taker, the singer is relying heavily on standards in her latest tour.

October 09, 2003|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

"Safe" is a word that's all too appropriate for many garden-variety pop musicians. But not Emmylou Harris, whose career has been a virtual blueprint for uncompromising artistic exploration and integrity.

Yet Tuesday at Royce Hall, the singer-songwriter 'fessed up that she has "chickened out" on her latest tour.

Instead of taking the bold step of performing her often captivating new album, "Stumble Into Grace," in its entirety, as she had on the first few stops, she more safely mixed a handful of the new songs among many of the hits and signature tunes from her deep repertoire.

That path produced a richly satisfying concert made all the more rewarding by the varied, resourceful backing of her trio, Spyboy. Yet it was not the sort of move we've come to expect from one of the great artistic consciences of her generation.

She may, in fact, recognize that "Stumble Into Grace," while a strong third leg on an adventurous new direction she started with 1995's striking "Wrecking Ball" and continued with the knockout punch of "Red Dirt Girl" three years ago, still lands somewhat short of those predecessors.

"Time in Babylon" squanders its seductive rhythmic groove with an uncharacteristically obvious, almost preachy social commentary, and a couple of other songs aim too high in trying to cast human experience in mythological terms. She's at her best in examining affairs of the heart, as in "Strong Hand," which she dedicated to June Carter and Johnny Cash, and the almost unbearably heartbreaking "I Will Dream."

Those two songs join the likes of other set highlights, including Delbert McClinton's "Two More Bottles of Wine," Buck Owens' "Together Again" and her own exquisite "Boulder to Birmingham," among numbers that seem destined to stand the test of time.

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