ATLANTA -- All the performing songwriters involved in the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue tour -- especially its marquee name, Emmylou Harris -- insisted the Wednesday night (Aug. 12) show here was nothing more than a rehearsal for the rest of the tour.
Nobody appeared to have opening-night jitters though. That's because the cast members -- which also include Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller and the duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings -- are constantly on the road, in some fashion. They all cling to artistic integrity above commercial cash-in, as well, making the acoustic-driven, two-and-a-half hour concert a fine endorsement for staying true to your creative vision.
Of course, two-and-a-half hours can be a long stretch of lonesome when it's just a few people with acoustic guitars singing mostly sad songs, and the night did have its lulls, just as any show does. However, the plentiful musical highlights far outweighed the one or two boring spots, especially as the evening progressed.
Each artist played individual sets without interruption, book-ended by everybody singing together. After the group sang two songs from Harris' catalog, she remained on the stage with Miller to sing her newer stuff, such as "Red Dirt Girl" and "Orphan Girl," written by Welch. Harris, Miller and Welch all live in Nashville, incidentally, and Harris and Miller are neighbors, Harris said.
After Harris took her bow, Miller stuck around to sing songs by Tom T. Hall, the Louvin Brothers and Willie Dixon, as well as "I've Got a Wide, Wide River to Cross" from his own upcoming album. Miller has long been Harris' sideman on the road, but his distinct singing voice and gritty songwriting added some punch to a show that could have veered into Lilith Fair territory.
Somewhat famous because of their involvement with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Welch and Rawlings earned a rousing welcome from the crowd, many of whom brought candle centerpieces to the concert, along with picnic dinners. With the sun down, the crowd turned more excitable and yet more attentive, too.
"I sensed that you were having a good time, so it's my duty to bring everybody down a bit," Welch joked. "I can't help it. It's kind of my thing." Indeed, her songs tend to be morose, but she's no longer an awkward wallflower on stage. Few folk singers possess the charisma of Welch and Rawlings, and their stage banter is not contrived, thankfully.
Welch also mentioned that she's enjoying the attention from those men who find a banjo-playing woman attractive, and though it's not why she recently picked up the instrument, she added that it's a nice benefit. Though they only sang six songs from their wealth of material, Welch and Rawlings did offer keepers such as "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll," "Time the Revelator" and "I'll Fly Away."
Griffin's set came last, yet she offered the fewest songs of anybody. She also brought her touring band, adding some electricity and vitality to the concert. While it's hard to beat her original, ultimately optimistic songs like "Making Pies," "When It Don't Come Easy" or "Truth No. 2," Griffin surprised even her longtime fans during the encore with a sexy, growling portion of The Band's "The Weight." The crowd spontaneously screamed and howled, even those who had likely never heard of her. With that particular song's colorful cast of characters, it really is suited to a sing-along, even though we've all heard it a zillion times.
Oddly enough, the concert ended the same way it began, with Harris performing the Carter Family's "Hello Stranger," only this time with Griffin's band accompanying the songwriters. If the so-called rehearsal was this satisfying to the ears of authentic music lovers, the rest of the cities on the tour are in for a fine evening of music.
"To Know Him Is to Love Him"
"Red Dirt Girl"
"My Baby Needs a Shepherd"
"Your Long Journey"
"That's How I Got to Memphis"
"Does My Ring Burn Your Finger"
"I've Got a Wide, Wide River to Cross"
"Shelter Me Lord"
"There's a Higher Power"
"You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover"
Gillian Welch & David Rawlings:
"Throw Me a Rope"
"I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll"
"One Little Song"
"Time the Revelator"
"I'll Fly Away"
"Love Throw a Line"
"When It Don't Come Easy"
"Truth No. 2"
"In My Hour of Darkness"
"Bright Morning Stars"
"Hello Stranger" (reprise with band)