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Live Review: Emmylou Harris and the Red Dirt Boys • Old Town School of Folk Music • Chicago

| February 3, 2022

Emmylou Harris and the Red Dirt Boys

Old Town School of Folk Music

January 31, 2022

Review by Jeff Elbel

The snow forecast for a Monday evening held off long enough to allow Emmylou Harris fans clear passage to and from the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square. Inside Maurer Hall, the audience settled in for a cozy evening with one of the finest interpreters of a song in any genre. Harris’s voice was sweet and inviting as ever from the opening moments of “Here I Am,” while being etched with time and experience. The crowd tilted toward Baby Boomers, but discriminating roots music listeners spanning generations dotted the padded pews.

The 21-song set ranged throughout Harris’ catalog. The Gillian Welch-penned “Orphan Girl” was drawn from 1995’s Wrecking Ball and brought to vivid life by Harris and her trusty Red Dirt Boys. Harris’ acoustic guitar and airy soprano were joined by Phil Madeira’s earthen harmonies and reedy accordion.

“You all remember country music, right?,” asked Harris when introducing “Red Dirt Girl.” “Yes, ma’am,” came a reply from the crowd.

“Making Believe” was a country heartbreaker first recorded by Kitty Wells. Guitarist Will Kimbrough’s guitar intertwined with Eamon McLachlan’s stirring violin. Kimbrough’s twanging telecaster solo danced atop drummer Bryan Owings’ lively shuffle during Marty Stuart’s “Tempted.”

The singer was a gregarious host, easily sharing amiable stories about herself, her songs, and the friends and heroes who wrote many of them. Harris named Nanci Griffith as an inspirational presence when introducing “Gold Coast Highway,” featuring a vocal duet with Kimbrough in addition to McLachlan’s mandolin. Harris added that she didn’t believe in self-driving cars because they wouldn’t know to pull over when the perfect time-stopping song appeared on the radio. “They have no soul,” she quipped.

There were scarcely any missteps to speak of, but Harris breezed through the only notable instance with a seasoned entertainer’s instincts. After beginning old partner Rodney Crowell’s rollicking roots rocker “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” in the wrong key, Harris course-corrected and wisecracked, “The acid just kicked in.” The song gave the top-flight lead players room to stretch with spirited solos on Madeira’s piano, Kimbrough’s guitar, and McLachlan’s violin.

Harris took the temperature of the room while introducing the somber “My Name is Emmett Till,” a song focused on a key event in the story of the American Civil Rights movement. “I need to probably give a tip of the hat to NPR, that bastion of liberal bias called the truth,” she said, with tongue in cheek. “Oh, I’m among friends,” she added to the ensuing applause. Of the song’s underlying message, Harris concluded by saying, “We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Owings got a workout while propelling hot country numbers like “Luxury Liner,” and seemed to have a grand time while doing so. Bassist Chris Donahue stuck close by, always in the pocket with Owings whether on fretted electric or upright bass for songs like dearly-departed Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” Harris joked about her veteran status before playing the classic cut from 1973. “I always loved this song, but I thought, ‘Oh, I’m not old enough. I don’t have the credibility to sing this song.’” Harris paused before adding, “Well, guess what?” The remark drew warm laughter from the room. “I think I can do it now,” she said. The singer later announced that she’s turning 75 in April. “But I’m having too much fun, and I’m not about to quit,” she added to hearty applause.

Madeira and Kimbrough joined Harris around her microphone for a capella harmony during “Bright Morning Stars.” Other favorites included the 1981 title cut “Evangeline” and the upbeat and restless “Born to Run.” The main set concluded with the swaying waltz of “Shores of White Sand” and Red Dirt Girl’s sublime and emotive “The Pearl.”

The show also served as a celebration of the public’s cautious return to communal musical events, an experience that Harris acknowledged gratefully throughout the evening. She closed the show with a final note of related thanks. “This is the best song I know about coming back together after a long separation,” Harris said, concluding with a warm-hearted version of Buck Owens’ Bakersfield classic “Together Again.”

Set List:

Here I Am

Orphan Girl

Red Dirt Girl

Making Believe

Tempted

Raise the Dead

My Name Is Emmett Till

Get Up John

Wheels

Luxury Liner

Bright Morning Stars

God Is God

Evangeline

Born to Run

Ooh Las Vegas

I Ain’t Living Long Like This

Gulf Coast Highway

Old Five and Dimers Like Me

Shores of White Sand

The Pearl

Together Again

Special thanks to John “Nunu” Zomot for his photos. 

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