The talent on stage at The Paramount in Huntington Sunday, March 24 was truly jaw-dropping. Grammy-winners Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell were joined on the bill by Grammy-nominee Richard Thompson, who’d recently been awarded an Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.
We’re talking Nashville royalty and a London luminary. Here, on tour, was the best that country music has to offer and one of the greatest living guitarists—all still performing at the top of their musical careers, taking risks, seizing the moment, spanning tradition and stretching the genres.
It was a magical evening of bittersweet harmonies, honky-tonkin’ rhythms, raw-boned Celtic rock, electrifying solos, broken hearts, healed hearts, lofty lyrics, aching metaphors, pathos, dark humor, black coffee and “Tragedy,” at least in the form of a wonderfully moving song co-written by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, touring together for the first time in almost 40 years.
Harris, now a celebrated silver-haired songstress, first heard Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine” when she was looking for songs to perform on her first solo record, back in 1974, a year after her famous partner Gram Parsons had passed away. She tracked him down, and he joined her Hot Band for several years. Some of the original members of that ensemble rejoined Harris and Crowell on their new album, Old Yellow Moon, which just came out in February, and features a slightly revised “Bluebird Wine” to accommodate the passage of time—and the wisdom gained—since Crowell first wrote the song when he was barely 22.
Now 62, Crowell, once married to Roseanne Cash, has had his songs covered by his ex-father-in-law Johnny Cash, Etta James and even the Grateful Dead. Harris is a highly regarded song hoarder, and together in the hallowed confines of Huntington’s Paramount, they did inspired versions of Waylon Jennings’ “Dreaming My Dreams,” Matraca Berg’s poignant “Back When We Were Beautiful,” Kris Kristofferson’s mournful “Chase the Feeling,” and “Hanging Up My Heart,” a song by Hank DeVito that Sissy Spacek recorded for Coal Miner’s Daughter. Harris gave a special shout-out to Patti Scialfa, you-know-who’s wife, before doing a haunting version of her 1993 song, “Spanish Dancer.”
Judging from the fans milling outside the Paramount before the concert began, Harris and Crowell were probably the top draw, but Richard Thompson certainly had his share of aficionados, who’d come to revel in the power of his new album, Electric, his 14th studio recording, which was produced by Buddy Miller and recorded at Miller’s Nashville studio. Named one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Top 20 Guitarists of All Time,” Thompson is a master of raw, Celtic-edged rock and finger-picking fluidity. He’d joined Sandy Denny in Fairport Convention in the late 1960s, played on a couple of tracks of the legendary late-artist Nick Drake, and gone on to garner critical acclaim with Linda Thompson (now his ex-wife) on the album Shoot Out the Lights.
The previous time I’d caught Thompson at this venue on New York Avenue it was known as the Imac, and he was a solo acoustic act. This time he brought his talented trio along: Taras Prodaniuk on bass and Michael Jerome on drums. They rocked, doing cut after cut from the new album to scintillating effect, and, given the sound system at The Paramount, they were superb. Thompson did set aside his electric guitars (he used several) to perform “Vincent Black Lightning, 1952,” his classic ballad about Red Molly and her ne’er-do-well beau James, who bequeaths her his “fine motorbike” should fate break his stride. All in all, Thompson showed his virtuosic dexterity to perfection.
Emmylou Harris brought him back onstage later in her set with Crowell, saying she was honored to be touring with one of “the greatest guitarists of my generation.” Thompson, in a black beret, and Crowell, in a brown cowboy hat, could both bring haberdashery’s headgear back in style. The British folk-rock artist smiled mischievously as he joined in a hard-driving version of Crowell’s song, “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.” And when Thompson traded incendiary licks with Harris’ hotshot Aussie lead guitarist, Jedd Hughes, the audience roared.
For the encore, Harris and Crowell did Crowell’s evocative tribute to the Mississippi bayous, “Stars on the Water,” and took their band to the 31st floor of Gram Parson’s classic “Sin City,” where “your gold-plated door won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.”
Inside The Paramount on March 24th, if there was any rain that night, it felt like teardrops of joy.