NEW YORK CITY — When Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell ’s creative partnership began back in 1974, the death of Harris’s previous singing partner, country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons , was still a fairly fresh wound. But when Crowell began playing with and writing for Harris, it helped give her fledgling solo career both the ballast and the boost it needed. Crowell’s presence in Harris’ Hot Band and his songwriting contributions to her early albums gave her the kind of foil she hadn’t had since Parsons passed away in ’73.
Fast-forward four decades.
After traveling their own paths for most of their lives, Crowell and Harris have finally reunited for their first duo album, Old Yellow Moon, and a tour that truly becomes a roots music fan’s dream come true with the addition of British folk-rock legend Richard Thompson as the opening act.
“It’s only taken Rodney and I 40 years to get here,” said Harris from the stage of New York City’s Beacon Theatre during their Wednesday night (March 27) concert, about a week shy of her 66th birthday.
Their set began with a look even further back into Harris’ past as Crowell, 62, took Parsons’ parts on two of the late songwriter’s classics, “Return of the Grievous Angel” and “Wheels.” It was a thrill to come as close as humanly possible to Parsons’ seminal sound, but like Old Yellow Moon (most of which made it onto the evening’s set list), the show touched on several eras from the pair’s past together and apart.
Townes Van Zandt’s bittersweet outlaw ballad “Pancho and Lefty,” recorded by Harris for 1977’s Luxury Liner, gave way to Crowell’s driving “Earthbound” from his 2003 album, Fate’s Right Hand. Leading into a luminous performance of Crowell’s aching ballad “Till I Gain Control Again,” which appeared on her 1975 album, Pieces of the Sky, Harris recalled the day she first met up with Crowell to listen to his songs and he told her unassumingly, “Here’s one I wrote.” After delivering the Crowell/Harris composition “Tragedy” from Harris’s Red Dirt Girl and the Parsons-penned title track of her 1977 album, Luxury Liner, the duo started digging deeply into Old Yellow Moon.
“We settled down and raised us up a record,” Crowell said of the new album, praising his partner for having “the soul of a poet, the voice of an angel and the heart of a cowgirl” before they leapt into “Hanging Up My Heart,” an old-school-sounding country tune written by former Hot Band member Hank DeVito, and the equally honky-tonk-tinged Ray Price hit “Invitation to the Blues.”
Crowell’s bouncy, jubilant “Bluebird Wine,” another Pieces of the Sky cut, is reinterpreted on Old Yellow Moon. Introducing it at the concert, Harris reminisced about the original demo cassette of the song being her first exposure to Crowell. After the pair’s poignant treatment of the 1975 Waylon Jennings hit ballad “Dreaming My Dreams,” Harris wryly remarked, “Excuse me while I have a good time. I’m gonna sing one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard.” Matraca Berg ’s “When We Were Beautiful,” a Yellow Moon standout, duly dared the audience’s eyes to remain dry.
After two more Yellow Moon tracks — a sturdy, stomping take on Kris Kristofferson ’s cautionary tale of excess, “Chase the Feeling,” and the simmering, bluesy ode to coffee “Black Caffeine” (another DeVito composition) — the duo reached back to their shared past once more for their co-penned “Tulsa Queen” from Luxury Liner before tackling the new album’s shimmering title tune.
A roar rose up from the crowd when Thompson returned to the stage to trade fiery licks with guitarist Jedd Hughes on a barn-burning version of Crowell’s classic “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” which would have seemed like a logical closer, but Harris and Crowell weren’t ready to relinquish the evening’s reins just yet. After Crowell’s anthemic “Still Learning How to Fly,” the set came bounding to a close with the infectious, Cajun-flavored “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” a Crowell gem that both he and Harris recorded separately in 1978.
A three-song encore brought Crowell’s “Stars on the Water,” Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham” and the Everly Brothers chestnut “Love Hurts,” the slow-burning heartbreak ballad sung by Harris and Parsons on the latter’s Grievous Angel album and given a fresh reading on Old Yellow Moon. It may have taken almost four decades for Harris and Crowell’s stories to end up truly intertwined again, but the years of musical riches they revisited in the course of a single concert showed that all the waiting was worthwhile.