Emmylou Harris is a pretty ideal choice to open the annual summer concert series at Red Butte Garden. Like the venue itself, she is classy to no end, and while she might have some years on her, she doesn't seem any the worse for wear.
The woman is a living legend, thanks to her multi-decade career and incredible track record as an artist. She boasts an amazing voice, even at the age of 67. And her blend of folk, country and twang-tinged rock is a nice combo for a crowd that brings together both rabid music fans and casual picnic-lovers jonesing for quality outdoor time in SLC.
Tuesday night, after Nathanial Rateliff delivered an opening set that certainly won him some new fans in Utah, Harris fronted her stellar band through 22 songs spanning her career, paying homage to influential peers like Gram Parsons and Anna McGarrigle over the course of two hours on stage.
She began with a burst of excellent songs, and while it took a few songs for Harris and the band to lock in the sound on an occasionally blustery night in the amphitheater, they eventually started producing some of the stunning sounds that are a hallmark of Harris' shows. "Here I Am," "Orphan Girl" and "Making Believe," a song from her excellent 1977 Luxury Liner album, made for a pretty ideal opening trio.
Throughout the evening, the ever-charming Harris chatted with the crowd between songs, introducing them to some of her history, or simply letting them know what inspired her to write or record songs like "Red Dirt Girl," the upbeat "Even Cowgirls Gets the Blues" and "That's the Way It Goes."
She introduced "O Evangeline" by saying "This is a song about getting old, which is something I'm learning a lot about. When she followed up with an excellent version of "Green Pastures," accented beautifully with a mandolin solo, she said, "Since it's a gospel tune, you gotta make sure you're in tune, or you might get zapped."
She followed up "One of These Days," a song made famous by George Jones, with her stirring first-person narrative "My Name is Emmitt Till," a song delivered from the perspective of the teenage black boy murdered in 1955 in Mississippi, one of the flashpoints of the civil rights movement.
As the sky darkened and temperature dropped, Harris led the band through winning takes of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," "Michelangelo," a raucous "Luxury Liner 40 Tons of Steel," and "Darlin' Kate," dedicated to her friend and collaborator McGarrigle.
Her Grammy-winning 2014 collaboration with Rodney Crowell was represented by "Back When We Were Beautiful," and she covered the classic Drifters' tune "Save the Last Dance for Me." Harris and the band only did one song during the encore, but it was brilliant--"Boulder to Birmingham" from her 1975 Pieces of the Sky album proved a perfect capper on an evening that was almost perfect, too.