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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 1, 2014

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Richard Thompson blew the audience away.
Richard Thompson blew the audience away.

Emmylou lets her hair down

Emmylou Harris, owner of country music's most ethereal voice, a hillbilly goddess who seems to have descended from the heavens, landed at The Pabst Theater last night along with Rodney Crowell, a very competent backup band and one heck of an opening act in Richard Thompson.

Shall we start at the beginning?

Thompson, for those who aren't familiar, once led Britain's answer to The Byrds, Fairport Convention. From the day he started electrifying traditional music he's been scaring the bejeesus out of anyone who entertained silly notions that they could actually play the guitar. As radical as Hendrix in his own way, he takes ancient Celtic melodies places they have never been and brings them back cross-eyed and dazed.

Had he done only that, it would be impressive, but he also writes brilliantly dark, funny songs and then sings them with an urgency that make his contemporaries in the punk rock trenches sound tame. After his brilliant recordings with Fairport and ex-wife Linda Thompson, he scored more points here and there with his solo records, including a minor hit and major crowd pleaser, "52 Vincent Black Lightning."

Watching Thompson perform that solo, it was easy to envision guitarists scattered throughout the audience with their jaws on the floor. Apart from a brief solo set in the middle of his show, he did everything with his very sympathetic trio. They obviously understood the premise — this guy is Mark Knopfler for people who prefer to stay awake at shows. His guitars sound like they are strung with barbed wire and the light filtered down on his beatific smile. You had to think this is one happily twisted man. And he is back with a vengeance.

The camaraderie and bonhomie exhibited by the headliners Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell wasn't cooked up by record company publicists a few months ago in a rehearsal studio. These two go all the way back to mid-1974 when Harris was searching for songs for her first WB record and found his to be perfect. Their friendship was evident and the relaxed way they took the stage to casually reel off some fine country was a treat.

We're talking left-of-center country, the type banned by commercial radio, so not one pick-up truck was spotted in any lyrics. Thank God. Crowell's classic, "Till I Can Gain Control Again," indicated a fine literate sensibility, as far from Music Row as you can get and still be called country. A varied collection followed, featuring both voices, solo and in close aching harmony. They ranged from the fastest (and probably funniest) Kristofferson song you ever heard ("Loaded Again") to a duet that she usually reserves for Buddy Miller ("Love Hurts").

The audience was treated to some top-notch playing by some first stringers recruited from Nashville, Carolina and a very hot guitarist who grew up about 4 hours north of Adelaide in Oz. A few of Crowell's gems like "Leavin' Louisiana In The Broad Daylight" and "Ain't Livin' Long Like This" were given the full-on treatment with Thompson coming up to trade licks on the latter.

For someone viewed as one of the queens of country, Harris has always shown little concern for sticking to a formula. She sang a song by Patty Scialfa (The Boss' missus) called "Spanish Dancer" and took time to praise the authors, even when they weren't Crowell!

A few choices fell below those high points, but it was more ups than downs and the crowd knew they were seeing something rare, a gem of a band, a star who usually maintains her well-deserved place center stage, letting her hair down and sharing a little of the limelight. Make no mistake about, in any sane country in the world, Emmylou Harris would be considered a national treasure and all her experiments are worth catching. If she wants to play with friends and let her hair down, it still is worth your time.

Most everyone at The Pabst Theater would agree with that and left with smiles on their faces after the encore.

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