The aw-shucks modesty of this show’s title — “Three Girls And Their Buddy” — carried over into the coziness of the setup: four comfortably utilitarian chairs arrayed in a broad semicircle across the stage. When Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, and Buddy Miller came out to occupy those chairs, they had the relaxed, collective demeanor of intimate friends who just happened to be able to play music together.
Yet this was also a group of intimate friends whose fans had just happened to fill the venue to capacity, and when Harris began the performance with a typically exquisite reading of Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl”, she dispelled any lingering idea that the audience had paid to see a couple hours of mere amiability.
However, the amiability did make for easy transitions as the four rotated lead-singer responsibilities. Griffin followed Harris with a simmering take on her own “Useless Desires”, Colvin took over with her wistful “Wichita Skyline”, and Miller offered a boisterous, inevitably crowd-pleasing run at “What Made Milwaukee Famous”.
This rotation, and the stripped-down instrumentation — only Miller played an electric guitar, and any non-strummed rhythms came primarily from the smack of shoe heel on wood floor — sharpened the focus both on each song and on the strengths and quirks of each singer.
Harris was the most strongly recognizable of the four, of course: Even if she hadn’t noted her 35 years on the road, her voice would have supplied that information for her. Sounding luminescent — like candles rather than fluorescent bulbs, fireflies instead of streetlights — she had such control that even the cracks of experience in her voice were filled with subtle emotional shades, and songs such as “All I Left Behind” and “Red Dirt Girl” would have sounded less real without these technical imperfections.
Griffin, although more jittery in her banter than the supremely down-home Harris, was clear and soaring during the soft mourning of “Mary” and the disarming simplicity of “Stay On The Ride”. Colvin, with a thin undertone that sounded at once jaded and childlike, conveyed bitterness, hurt, and a sliver of hope in “Get Out Of This House” and Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance”.
In that last number, Miller was at least as effective an accompanist — a substitute, as it were, for Thompson himself — as he was a strong frontman on a lonesome cry such as his own “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”. As (in a nearly literal sense) the odd man out, he made himself useful by supplying guitar work that was dexterous, intuitive, and often slyly witty.
Miller was also the most directly humorous, introducing Johnnie & Jack’s “Poison Love” as “Your Poison Love Has Stained The Lifeblood Of My Heart And Soul, Dear” and generally behaving as though his powerful voice — easily a match for anyone in Nashville — was no big thing.
That it was a big thing, just like the talents of Harris, Griffin, and Colvin, wasn’t lost on the crowd. These weren’t just any three girls, and this wasn’t just anyone’s Buddy.