Billed as “Emmylou Harris, the Mavericks and more,” this taping for the PBS series “Sessions At West 54th” promised a considerable range of possibilities as to who “more” would be. Waiting in line to get in, it seemed everyone either thought they knew or had their own wish list. Clearly the special guests would be culled largely from the recent Almo Records disc Return Of The Grievous Angel: A Tribute To Gram Parsons — but the evening’s proceedings delivered some intriguing departures from the cast that contributed to the recorded version.
The atmosphere could be considered either classy or sterile: The audience, which serves as a backdrop for the performances, is requested to wear dark clothes, stay seated and stay quiet. When the lights went down, host John Hiatt (who has taken the reins from David Byrne as the “Sessions” emcee this season) spoke briefly about Parsons’ music and influence before introducing Emmylou Harris. Her band served as the house band for the evening, with Bernie Leadon on guitar and mandolin; Buddy Miller on bass and guitar; Greg Liesz on pedal steel, guitar and dobro; Paul “Wix” Wickens on keyboards; and Ethan Johns on drums.
Harris immediately brought out her first guest and launched into “Return Of The Grievous Angel” with Whiskeytown’s Ryan Adams. The title song of the tribute disc set the tone for the evening in two ways: 1) the set list consisted mostly of the material on the album, though with different performers in some instances; 2) this tribute generally stayed true to the original renditions, rather than trying to push Parsons’ musical envelope.
Gram’s former Byrds/Burritos bandmate Chris Hillman was introduced next and brought out Steve Earle to trade verses on “High Fashion Queen”. Hillman then told a story of Gram’s aborted wedding plans and stayed out to back Victoria Williams and Mark Olson on “$1000 Wedding”. Members of the house band were then joined by the Mavericks for “Hot Burrito #1″. Unlike several of the evening’s male singers who shared certain vocal similarities with Parsons, the Mavericks’ Raul Malo stood out as distinctly different with his elegant croon.
Hillman, who co-wrote five of the night’s songs with Parsons, came back out with Hiatt to trade verses on “Christine’s Tune (Devil In Disguise)”; it was nothing revelatory but a hell of a lot of fun. Hillman then introduced the first song he ever heard Gram sing and brought out Gillian Welch and David Rawlings to sing “Hickory Wind”. With their two acoustic guitars backed only by the perfect pedal steel of Greg Leisz, Parsons’ tune received Welch’s signature slow, sparse and haunting delivery. It was the highlight of the evening. Welch and Rawlings stayed out and were joined by Earle and Harris’ band for “Sin City”.
Harris finally returned and introduced Sheryl Crow with a story about how she recruited her for the project. Their duet on “Juanita” had to be repeated because of a technical foul-up, but the audience was delighted to get to hear them sing it again. Harris then introduced “Wheels” as the “most righteous shuffle ever written”; Hillman, joined this time by Jim Lauderdale, did the song justice.
Next up was Whiskeytown, who joined the house band on “A Song For You”. Adams did an excellent job of channeling Gram, even if fiddler Caitlin Cary’s vocals couldn’t quite equal those of Emmylou on the original. Accompanying Cary and Adams were Leisz on pedal steel, Leadon on Mandolin, Johns (who produced Whiskeytown’s upcoming record) on drums, Whiskeytown keyboardist Mike Daly on organ, occasional Whiskeytowner Brad Rice on guitar, and the Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha on guitar.
The obvious finale was the Harris/Parsons co-write of “In My Hour Of Darkness”, which also closes the tribute album. As Victoria Williams sang the first verse, every musician who had played throughout the show filtered back onstage. Requiring three takes, it was every bit as ragged as you might expect from a collection of 25 or more musicians, and yet it was also every bit as beautiful as you would expect from that much talent.
The sight of Bernie Leadon passing his mandolin to Chris Hillman midway through the song was classic. And where else could you see Sheryl Crow sharing a microphone with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on one side, and Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary on the other? Steve Earle and Victoria Williams shared another microphone, Emmylou Harris and Jim Lauderdale shared the third, and with no microphone, Leadon and Hillman just beamed at each other.
When it was over, they lingered together onstage with genuine handshakes between people who had never met before this show and warm reunions between old friends. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the night was the hug and expressions on the faces of the two people to whom this presumably meant the most: Emmylou Harris and Chris Hillman. They had honored Gram and his music, and everyone there knew they had been part of something very special.
A postscript: Call it coincidence or fate, but apparently without any planned intentions on either end, the taping was held on September 19, the 26th anniversary of Parsons’ death; and the scheduled air date is November 5, which would have been Parsons’ 53rd birthday.