There’s always something a bit odd about seeing music outside of its natural context. For the organic folk and country made by Americana royalty Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, the music is best heard in a small listening room or, barring that, a cozy theater.
That disconnect might be why it felt a little awkward for the first few songs the duo played with their five-piece backing band on Tuesday night. Opening with a cover of Lucinda William’s “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” and few other more rollicking numbers, the music sounded both a little thin and a little boomy in TD Arena, hardly descriptors that naturally come to mind when thinking about either artist’s work. Crowell and Harris handled whatever sound struggles there might have been gracefully though, and things settled in after a while.
The duo, whose musical partnership dates back to 1975, when Crowell wrote a few songs and played rhythm guitar in Harris’s The Hot Band, were touring in support of their two duo records, the Grammy Award-winning Old Yellow Moon from 2013 and the recently-released The Traveling Kind, so a decent chunk of the set covered songs from those records, but there seemed to be relatively little formula for how the show unfolded. The ease with which Harris, 68, and Crowell, 64, led their band and joked playfully in between songs drew the show as close as it could to that listening room vibe, and it was clear how and why these guys are world-class entertainers. Both are still in such fine vocal form that you almost forget how many years they’ve been at it, even as they jokingly remind you of their long history. Upstate native Fayssoux McLean, who sang harmonies on those early Hot Band records, was in attendance and got a couple of shout-outs from Harris, but there was relatively little ceremonial about the proceedings as the two talked about playing in a hotel lobby at the Kerrville Folk Festival a few weeks ago and kidded Spoleto about having a festival indoors.
The informality of presentation was belied by the fairly studied nature of the songs themselves. Harris still, forty years later, grounds much of set in the songs of Gram Parsons, with “Return of the Grievous Angel” and “Love Hurts” both given lovely readings with Crowell taking the place of Parsons and Harris re-creating the unforgettable harmonies that dominated those recordings. Other highlights include her plaintive interpretation of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty” and a mesmerizing encore of Parson’s “Hickory Wind,” which she told the audience she only plays when performing in South Carolina. Much of the material on the new record sounded positively effervescent as well, with the elegiac “The Traveling Kind,” the classic country shuffle “No Memories Hanging Round” and the Harris ballad “Higher Mountains” being particular standouts.
These more tender moments were balanced by a clearly talented backing band that played purposefully restrained for much of the evening only to charge through a few dazzling solos near the end of the set. Australian lead guitarist Jedd Hughes was particularly spectacular, throwing down a boisterous rock solo at the end of the night that nearly upended the even-keeled signature performance style that Crowell and Harris are known for.
When the duo returned for the “Hickory Wind”/”Old Yellow Moon” encore, though, a hushed reverence returned to the proceedings. Hearing voices this good, playing songs this good, was ultimately all this night was about.