There were rumors that a surprise special guest would open Emmylou Harris' show Thursday night at El Rey Theatre. Beforehand, fans tried to guess who the secret performer might be -- no easy task since Harris has collaborated with so many pop celebrities, including Linda Ronstadt, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Patty Griffin and, of course, Gram Parsons. Perhaps it would be one of her old pals, such as Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Gillian Welch or her former producer Daniel Lanois. Or perhaps it would be a younger acolyte, such as Conor Oberst or Harris' fellow Nashville resident Jack White. Maybe Prince would swing by before one of his Forum concerts.
But the guest star turned out to be the alt-country bard Ryan Adams, who strummed a short solo set of acoustic songs. The Whiskeytown founder was in a humble, self-deprecating mood, and the sold-out crowd laughed supportively at every one of his between-song comments, even when he wasn't trying to be funny. Adams' voice was achingly pure as he crooned his high-and-lonesome folk-country ballads, but he sounded even better when Harris came out at the end of the set and harmonized with him on a gently languid version of "Oh My Sweet Carolina."
Although so many of her contemporaries these days are content to trot out dutiful full-length renditions of their classic old albums, Harris instead challenged her audience by performing her new album, Hard Bargain, in its entirety. Interestingly, she chose to rearrange the order of songs, building momentum early with touching tunes like "Darlin' Kate," a heartfelt elegy to her late friend Kate McGarrigle, and Ron Sexsmith's title track, where she sounded ambivalent about her long career and her stellar past: "I'm a bit rundown, but I'm OK ... So I keep on playin' that old song/'Cause for all I know, it's where I belong."
And yet, Harris clearly wants to do more than just play her old songs. Instead of attempting to reprise the fiery sound of her celebrated 1970s group the Hot Band, she was backed Thursday night by a low-key duo. Jay Joyce called up spectral, shape-shifting sounds from his electric guitar, although his solos occasionally veered toward new-age mushiness. Giles Reaves played keyboards with his right hand while simultaneously tapping on a drum pad with his left hand. Reaves' rhythms were stiff, but his electronic accompaniment helped to transform Harris' songs from retro country pop into something much more modern and mysteriously experimental.
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Meanwhile, Harris held down the fort with solid acoustic guitar chords, even as her chillingly beautiful voice soared like a breeze through the Art Deco theater's ornate chandeliers. The white-haired singer conjured such a persuasively stark and sad spell after the aptly titled "Lonely Girl" that a male fan was moved to shout, "Marry me!"
"We'll talk about that after the show," she replied disarmingly. Harris broke up the solemn mood with cheerier songs like the loping "Big Black Dog," an homage to the best friend she rescued from the Nashville pound. After rocking it up a bit on the Hurricane Katrina lament "New Orleans," she joked, "See? Once in a while, I do a fast song."
But the main focus was on those melancholic ballads from Hard Bargain, and Harris and her small band closed movingly with the somber civil rights anthem "My Name Is Emmett Till" and "The Road," an ode to her early partner Gram Parsons. It seemed obvious that even now, nearly 40 years after Parsons overdosed in Joshua Tree, Harris still can't get over his untimely death.
Once they ran through the entire album, Harris, Reaves and Joyce returned for an encore, but, instead of rummaging through the singer's deep catalog, the trio finished the night with a simple yet lovely version of John Lennon's "Imagine." The song was about hope, but, as ever, Harris was more interested in the future than in reliving her past.