Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #103 - Emmylou Harris - Wrecking Ball

We were 8 years into owning Twist and Shout and I was finally starting to feel like I was part of the music scene. We started out so completely unconnected to the industry. I was a customer of the record stores in town and I filled many seats at local concerts big and small, but essentially I was an outsider. That night in 1995, I remember being at a show downtown. There was a year or two where a series of shows was put on outdoors in a very urban location. I think the band playing might have been Los Lobos but I’m not sure. Either way one of my ex-employees came up to me and said “you should come over to The Bluebird Theatre after this show. Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois are going to play a private late night show.” !! I was very excited. These were two artists I loved dearly. Emmylou since her days with Gram Parsons and her early solo hits. I saw her in the mid 70’s with her original Hot Band and was blown away by how effortlessly she straddled the fence between country and rock. She brought down the house over and over. Daniel Lanois had been a growing obsession through his work with Brian Eno, Bob Dylan, Neville Brothers and more recently his first brilliant solo album Acadie. The idea of seeing them together was tempting. I had no idea how tempting.

Harris and Lanois perform "Wrecking Ball" in 2012
When we got to the Bluebird it was packed with hipsterati and music industry insiders. I felt like this was possibly the best place in the universe to be that night. There were candles around the stage and the house lights were dim. They walked onstage and for the next hour and a half we were collectively lulled into a state of euphoric devastation. That seems like two unlikely emotions to work together, but that is the exact effect this music has on the listener. Wrecking Ball is musically euphoric while the lyrics and overall effect are devastating. Finding beauty through melancholy is something that Emmylou Harris has always done well.

Wrecking Ball consists of 12 songs carefully chosen by Emmylou and Daniel, which through a combination of the emotional impact of the lyrics, the perfection of Ms. Harris’ delivery and the utterly unique and sympathetic production and musical style achieved by Mr. Lanois produces one of the great albums of my lifetime. Lanois’ musical fingerprints are everywhere, as he not only creates a swampy, mysterious atmosphere but adds musical touches throughout, playing on every song. He never loses sight of the mission, and this is ultimately the secret to this album and all Lanois’ great production work: he keeps Emmylou’s voice and interpretive skills at the very center of the mix, crystalline perfection – nothing distracts from the miracle that is her voice. And her voice never found a greater group of songs to perform. Except for Hendrix’s “May This Be Love” all the songs were fairly contemporary to the album. Emmylou was trolling the best of the current crop of writers – Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Dylan, Julie Miller, Anna McGarrigle, Neil Young, Rodney Crowell, Daniel Lanois and herself – and she came up with a magical collection of songs. It’s not a bunch of happy ditties, in fact the running order reads like a litany of human loss and sorrow. Take as an example her version of  “Sweet Old World,” Lucinda Williams’ song of losing a friend to suicide, Already a powerful statement, Emmylou takes this song to such an incredibly heartbreaking place with a quavering voice and Neil Young harmonizing the chorus and adding a plaintive harmonica wail. Or the aforementioned “May This Be Love;” Emmylou brings her gentle calm to the vocal and Lanois doubles her vocal while bringing forth Hendrix’s spirit with a squealing guitar solo. Each song is set, jewel-like, into the perfect setting to show off the lyric and to keep Emmylou’s voice the center of attention.
 Lanois may have reached his zenith as a producer with Wrecking Ball, which could be selling the rest of his career short (after all he did pretty well with U2), but with this album he seems to have found his sweet spot as both producer and collaborator. He enhances all Emmylou’s natural gifts and together, they delivered the album of her career. I’ve wanted to do this review for a while, and it was a happy coincidence that when I
finally got around to it, there was a deluxe version of it being released. Paired with a disc of demos and outtakes, including Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” and Lanois’ excellent “Still Water” as well as a DVD documentary on the making of the album, this package gives the album the special treatment it deserves. I was thrilled that the documentary contained not only footage of the band making the album - Neil Young in the studio playing second banana to Emmylou - but also has some footage of that special show at the Bluebird Theatre. Seeing it, took me right back to that wonderful night, and re-ignited my burning love affair with this album.

- Paul Epstein

1 comment:

David Hill said...

I was also at the Bluebird that night. As I recall, Emmylou and her band were set to perform in Boulder at the Gavin AAA convention, and they wanted to rehearse the "Wrecking Ball" songs one more time, so they scheduled a last-minute show at the Bluebird and announced it on the radio (pre-Internet!). That's how we found out about it. Funny, I don't remember the Bluebird being packed, but I could be wrong. Regardless, Paul is absolutely right: the Bluebird was indeed the best place in the universe to be that night.