Atlanta’s Chastain Park is notorious for the crowd’s behavior. It’s a place to see and be seen, to chow down and chat, often with little attention paid to whoever is onstage, artists who end up providing background music for the evening’s social interactions.
But not on this night. The evening’s hostess, Emmylou Harris, who projects a calm but charismatic demeanor, had everyone’s attention from the start. “This is the first show of the tour, or the dress rehearsal,” she quipped, surrounded by the tour’s other participants — Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, and Patty Griffin. Together, they kicked off the warm summer evening’s show with the ideal welcome: “Hello Stranger”.
The Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue was loosely constructed and styled around traditional old-time package tours, with a group of individual artists doing solo sets and occasionally collaborating onstage. Historically, traveling musical revues were a great way for fans to hear a large number of their favorites at one big show; they were particularly big in the 1950s and ’60s among country, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll acts. The premise was pretty simple: Get a tight house band together and have them provide backup for the individual singers. It was convenient and economical, and it allowed the artists to do short sets showcasing their biggest hit songs.
The main difference between these events and the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue was the absence of a core backup band, as most of the artists performed solo acoustic sets. Also, with the vast catalogues and past collaborations shared by the participants, the show was sure to include quite a bit of crossover between them.
Surprisingly, Harris was the first act after the team-effort opening numbers, joined by Buddy Miller on lead guitar. Gently prompted by Harris’ comforting words, the crowd settled into reverent listening mode as she and Miller did a six-song set that started with “Red Dirt Girl” and ended with Welch’s “Orphan Girl”. The first indicator of this show being a “rehearsal” occurred when Harris faltered on the words of Bob Dylan’s “Oh Sister”, but nobody seemed to care. Each artist joined Harris at some point, an indicator of things to come.
Miller then took center stage, to a rousing welcome. He opened with Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got To Memphis”, showcasing his signature country soul sound, then moved on to some material from his new album, Universal United House Of Prayer. Harris rejoined him for “Wide River To Cross”; Welch and Griffin chimed in on “Shelter Me”. Miller closed his portion of the show with David Rawlings sitting in on guitar and Welch playing bass on an edgy version of Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover”.
Following Miller’s energetic and inspirational set, Welch & Rawlings took center stage and shifted the mood significantly to the darker side. As uplifting and joyful as Miller had been, Welch & Rawlings were the polar opposite, at least musically. Humorously banking on their gothic country sound and subject matter, Welch confessed to being on the tour just to “bring you down.” But they proceeded to steal the show with a stunning five-song set that had the crowd hypnotized. From the dark and obscure “Throw Me A Rope” through the uncharacteristically upbeat “I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll”, Welch & Rawlings were on the mark, setting up for a double-knockout with the awesome “Revelator” and the O Brother chestnut “I’ll Fly Away”, which ended their set with the crowd singing along.
Griffin, who brought her band for backup, stood out as the “different” act on the bill, but was obviously respected by the crowd regardless of her more pop-influenced sound. “Love Throw A Line” and “Making Pies” were met with accepting applause, but she hit a home run when Harris joined her for “Truth #2″, a Griffin original recorded by the Dixie Chicks.
The grand finale found all the artists back onstage. Paying homage to Harris’ mentor and the godfather of Americana, they shared lead vocals on Gram Parsons’ classic “In My Hour Of Darkness”, then wrapped up the evening with The Band’s “The Weight”, each participant singing a verse while Miller and Rawlings engaged in a mini-guitar pull. Called back for an encore, the entourage repeated the evening’s opener “Hello Stranger”; when the song was over, there wasn’t a stranger left in the crowd.