Joe Papp was the theatrical impresario instrumental in the development of the New York Shakespeare Festival and The Public Theater. From unusual treatments of the Bard in Central Park, to presentation of groundbreaking plays by David Mamet, to revolutionary musicals such as Hair and A Chorus Line, Papp was continually involved in pushing the envelope of commercial theater.
The Pub that bears his name is a striking setting, with high arched windows and stately columns on the one hand, and a Plexiglas bar of alternating black and translucent stripes lit from underneath on the other. A chandelier mixes a traditional black metal circle with post-modern tube shaped bulbs. All in all, a fitting venue for Emmylou Harris, a woman whose art pushes the boundaries of its form, mixing traditional and modern in a seamless fashion. Seating about 150, including industry people, fellow artists Dr.John and Nanci Griffith, and some plain ol’ fans, the venue presented three sold-out evenings of with Emmylou Harris and her band Spyboy up close and personal.
On this last night of the engagement, band stalwarts Buddy Miller and Brady Blade took the stage right on time, joined by new bassist Tony Hall (replacing Daryl Johnson). They started up a pulsating groove for “The Pearl”, the opening track on Harris’ new disc Red Dirt Girl, to usher on a radiant Harris. Dressed in a long lavender skirt and a diaphanous top over a leotard, she strapped on her acoustic and began an unflagging two-hour show that mixed more muscular versions of the tunes on Red Dirt Girl with favorites both old (“Wheels”, “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This”) and new (“Deeper Well”, “Orphan Girl”, “The Maker”).
Miller’s ability to comfortably handle the divergent guitar styles from ambient to twang is invaluable; further, his highly personal sound and approach help merge the traditional country shuffles with the more modern atmospheric climes of 1995′s Wrecking Ball and Red Dirt Girl. Combine this with the Louisiana twist the rhythm section imbued into even the most traditional tunes, and there was never a sense of two different artistic eras.
Great as the playing was, the singing raised this concert to the level of a religious experience — as when the rhythm section departed and Miller matched melisma with Harris on “Love Hurts”, or when the whole band chimed in to take it to church on the virtually a cappella “Green Pastures”. The singing and the playing combined produced a unique Louvin Brothers meets Neville Brothers mix. Their take on the joining of rural white music with Afro-American rhythm provides a powerful reminder of what made rock ‘n’ roll such a magnificent miscegenation in the beginning. The great sound at Joe’s Pub captured every nuance of Harris’ voice, which lately more than makes up in character what little it has lost in purity.
Generations brought up on MTV might have had trouble with Harris’ somber delivery and minimal movement or patter, but in the closeness of this setting, the combo of back-porch intimacy and R&B muscle was more than enough entertainment value. About halfway into the evening, when Emmylou finally did break into a smile, it lit up the room with more wattage than Ricky Martin’s entire stage show.
The songs on Red Dirt Girl are mostly self-penned, unusual for Harris. With the encore of her classic tune “Boulder To Birmingham”, she showed the songwriting talent has always been there, and the live renditions of the new material proved that, like her voice, her songwriting has deepened and become more personal with age.
Talents such as Harris and Miller stand as stellar examples of how, F. Scott Fitzgerald aside, American lives do have second acts. Together, they could easily make gray hair hip.