With the film soundtrack compilation phenomenon still in full effect, songwriters and musicians are often drawn into the annual Sundance Film Festival, vying to get on the radar of the independent film world. Musical showcases and private-party performances abound, with Sundance 2003 drawing everyone from Low to Slash, Blackalicious to Sigur Ros.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, twenty steps down the stairs from the hustling cell phone bustle of Main Street, the Sundance Music Cafe presented a rare opportunity to hear roots music icons Buddy Miller, Daniel Lanois and Emmylou Harris in solo settings. As one might guess, it did not take these three close musical friends very long to take turns sitting in with each other. The low-key nature of the venue made for a sublime and special afternoon of music that canceled any need to be anywhere else, despite all the other film festival goings-on.
A little after 3 p.m., Miller stepped out on the small stage for a rare appearance playing solo. His wife and frequent musical partner, Julie Miller, could not make it, but Buddy soldiered on with what he called “one-person duets,” which brought out the best of his intricate guitar skills and expressive down-home vocals on his crossroads-of-blues-and-country material.
Armed with his vintage Italian three-pickup Wandre electric guitar, Miller first tore into a howling rendition of the title track from his latest album Midnight And Lonesome. Emmylou then joined in for some bittersweet harmonies on “Don’t Tell Me” (from his 1997 disc Poison Love). The deep chemistry present when Miller accompanies Harris in her Spyboy band was intensified in this setting.
Miller subsequently strapped on his acoustic Guild, lacing its sound with swampy reverb for “When It Comes To You”. His growling low and lonesome vocals reached a peak on a rendition of Julie’s “All My Tears”; he finished the song with an intense “yea-uh, yea-uh, yea-uh!” that pinned the ears back on the capacity crowd. The set closed on a stinging note of marital doubt with “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?” — though, with Emmylou in the house, it was obvious this wasn’t the last we’d hear from Buddy today.
Up next was Canadian-born Daniel Lanois, whose deep production style has colored landmark recordings by Dylan and U2 as well as Harris’ innovative 1995 release Wrecking Ball. Lanois’ Sundance showcase was his opportunity to roll out a batch of new songs from his upcoming release Shine, along with a few resonant numbers from his first solo release, 1989′s Acadie.
The set allowed a chance to experience firsthand Lanois’ intuitive Telecaster picking, a full-on melodic feast full of overtones verging on feedback. Without the aid of much processing on the way to the amp, Lanois’ inspired playing brings to mind a phrase Jimi Hendrix used in reference to his own illuminated soloing: “sky church.”
This mood was intensified as Lanois sat down to perform solo on pedal steel guitar. Referring to it as his first instrument, he commented, “I still play it every Sunday. It grounds me and even if I don’t go to church, it is my church.” He then drew out a goosebump-inducing instrumental, manipulating the instrument in ways unfamiliar to typical Nashville session work. The set ended with his best-known song, “The Maker”, Emmylou joining in to add a few more high points to the afternoon’s proceedings.
Harris was already the queen of the day before she segued into her own set with a reading of Lanois’ “Black Hawk And White Wing Dove”. The rest of her performance centered on songs from her 2000 release Red Dirt Girl. In this stark setting, songs such as “I Don’t Want To Talk About It Now”, “Red Dirt Girl”, “The Pearl” and “Michelangelo” showcased Harris’ talents as a songwriter. Without lush studio production, stripped down to the core of her angelic voice and acoustic rhythm guitar, Harris’ songs stood tall as the mountains surrounding Park City.
Miller joined Harris for much of her set, adding the same superb electric guitar embellishments he does by her side in Spyboy. She closed by calling Lanois to the stage for “Waterfall”, the Jimi Hendrix song covered on Wrecking Ball. As Lanois tore into the ringing guitar solo, notes sounding as if they were bouncing off the clouds, Harris closed her eyes, leaned her head to the side, and smiled a knowing grin.
We were all in the right place on this fine afternoon.