in performance: “three girls and their buddy” featuring emmylou harris, patty griffin, shawn colvin and buddy miller
“Come out on your porch or I’ll step into your parlor,” sang Emmylou Harris at the onset of last night’s sold out Three Girls and Their Buddy performance at the Singletary Center for the Arts. “I’ll tell you how it all went down.”
Ah, yes. A cordial welcome laced with a suggestion of danger where the next step was seldom anticipated. The song was Grievous Angel – a landmark work by Harris mentor Gram Parsons. But for a frigid January evening where Harris, Patty Griffin (pictured above; photo by Traci Goudie), Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller traded songs on a purposely level playing field, this opening bit of country salvation proved nicely appropriate.
The concert had as much the feel of detailed rehearsal as it did a formal recital. That shouldn’t suggest the audience was aboard a sloppy performance ship, though. It’s just that if the four artists needed to refer to a lyric sheet at times, they did. If a false start required a second take of a tune (or a third), so be it. And aside from obvious points intended as duets or group harmony settings, the four chimed in on backing vocals or miscellaneous percussion wherever they sensed they were needed.
Such was the spontaneous and genuinely cordial charm that permeated the show. Well, there was a pretty stunning repertoire of songs to go along with it, too. While the four performers are all learned songsmiths, much of the concert was given over to cover material. Over the course of two hours, the four interpreted music penned and/or popularized by The Stanley Brothers, The Louvin Brothers, The Everly Brothers, Dolly Parton, Richard Thompson, The Band, Bessie Smith and, of course, Parsons.
At age 60, it’s tough not to look at Harris as the stylistic elder of last night’s team. Certainly her singing during Parton’s Coat of Many Colors and The O’Kanes’ When We’re Gone, Long Gone melted country tradition into a more ghostly Americana sound that illuminated brittle but bold vocal colors as well as the songs’ inherent spiritualism.
Griffin, who has become as much a marquee name in recent years as Harris, was alternately the evening’s most studied and introspective voice – as evidenced by a lovely version of her grandmotherly portrait Mary, where all of the “girls” designed arresting harmonies – as well as the show’s biggest fireball. She began the title track to her 1998 album Flaming Red as a ragged blues before accelerating it into as a tent revival tabernacle piece.
Determined to “do what I do best and bring you straight back down,” Colvin was the program’s most sobering voice. In delivering her own That Don’t Worry Me Now and The Band’s It Makes No Difference (two different but linked stories of isolation), she made good, in the most poetic way possible, on her doomsday forecast. But when she teamed with Miller on the Everlys’ timeless Let It Be Me, the sense of innocence and light produced very honest chills.
Miller, in every sense, was the glue to the performance. He backed everyone on guitar, be it with nimble, country-style accents or, as was more often the case, atmospheric ambience that added to the evening’s unforced intimacy. But when the spotlight turned to his own music, Miller answered with the Louvins’ hearty testimonial There’s a Higher Power, Thompson’s cautionary romance Keep Your Distance (another duet with Colvin) and, best of all, an original gospel rocketship called Shelter Me where talking drum support by Griffin awarded her the nickname Patty Jean Krupa.
Ensemble versions of another Parsons diamond, Sin City and the O Brother, Where Art Thou-resurrected siren song Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby closed the program. Even Harris, who sang the latter on the O Brother soundtrack, had to refer to a lyric sheet for that one.
“We don’t like to get things too tight,” she said. “You can pay to see that anytime.”