Shimmering performance by the Mother Superior of country rock

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Amazing Grace

Emmylou Harris And Spyboy

CARLING APOLLO, LONDON

Sunday November 16, 2003

Emmylou’s wearing a body-hugging black dress, high heels and radiati ng style, class and smouldering sensuality. The opening “Here I Am” sets the scene aptly enough, a stirring statement of intent, identity and purpose. She steers into the song’s measured flow, moving through its steady current and singing of a mystical river and a promise never broken. The steadfast vow is not made lightly; Emmylou’s 35-year career has usurped the rulebook.

Her graceful presence and awe-inspiring voice immediately invite words like shimmering and translucent. But if one quality underpins the work of this silver-haired Goddess, Mother Superior of country rock, righteous rhythm guitar player and vocal stylist from harmony heaven, it is loyalty.

The loyalty is to her best instincts, to the music that guides her, to her mentors?from Dolly Parton to Willie Nelson, from Gram Parsons to Bob Dylan?and to the muse that she cannot refuse to follow. The willowy lass, who set out on the endless highway with the wayward GP as her guide, may have been expected to fade after Gram’s sad demise. But Ms Harris was always built of stronger stuff. On record, the astonishing transformation that came with 1995’s Wrecking Ball has eased up. A peerless interpreter of others’ songs, Emmylou is in her own right a respectable but hardly sensational songwriter. The stilted worthiness of this year’s Stumble into Grace grates when measured against her natural talents. “You have to put a record out every few years or they take away your performing license,” she jokes at one point. And it’s live that her greatness radiates most forcefully. The baseball-capped Buddy Miller tears several shades of tenderness and terror out of his guitar and the agile and eruptive Spyboy awaken new depths of turmoil and spiritual ache in her and in the songs.

If her post-Gram-era Hot Band provided a jaw-dropping master class for ’70s country rock, Spyboy’s turbulent, fevered New Orleans-inflected swamp funk is something else again. “Respectfully” dedicated to George Bush, “Time In Babylon” becomes a swirl of barely contained invective and icy dread. The pulsating wonder of “Where Will I Be” is a mission statement of deliverance and her enraptured delivery insures “Strong Hands” (the song inspired by Johnny Cash and June Carter) stands as a hymn to the miracle of enduring love.

And so it goes, when Emmylou is onstage you are seldom a breath away from the wondrous. “Boulder To Birmingham”, “Wheels” and “Hickory Wind” leave you drooling and humbled. Even after a puzzlingly misjudged final encore of “Imagine”, the inclination is to find a bunch of roses and lay it at her feet. The problem, of course, is finding one big enough to do her justice.