Discussion around Emmylou Harris’ 1995 album Wrecking Ball usually focuses on two areas – the way in which by releasing an album of songs by other artists she reinvigorated her career, and the special sound brought to them by Daniel Lanois. The first of two shows at the Barbican offered the opportunity to see how the songs would translate in a live environment, stripped of the monochrome, beautifully whitewashed production of the album.
Lanois opens the evening, joined by Jim Wilson on bass and Steve Nistor on drums – forming what he describes as “the triangle that stand behind Emmylou”. They play a solid set while “Emmylou is in the dressing room doing her singing exercises and drinking whiskey” (as revealed by Lanois). He also mentions how Brian Eno and Robert Plant are in audience and it’s easy to see why both would make the journey to the Barbican, especially Plant, given how his excellent Raising Sand album with Alison Krauss shared certain elements in common with Wrecking Ball.
When Harris appears on stage what is immediately apparent is that there are few performers who can match the unadulterated intensity and cutting gravitas of her voice. It may take her a few songs for it to hit full power but when it does it arrives in primal fashion with the full force of history behind it.
Where Will I Be immediately establishes the same sense of damaged glory that resides on the album and the part-whispered vocals also extend into her version of Steve Earle’s Goodbye. Both tracks still sound majestically stretched and strained, but musically they are bolstered and noticeably less exposed than on the recordings. In this way the live treatment of these songs can’t quite match the uniqueness of how they sound on album (although in fairness it was possibly unreasonable to expect anything else). The performance of Julie Miller’s All My Tears has an even greater directness, with all three opening songs demonstrating how she manages to juxtapose crumbling fragility with inner steeliness.
Her version of Neil Young’s Wrecking Ball may lose some of the hushed finesse of the recording but hearing her subtly adapt the lyrics of the original to “meet me at the wrecking ball, I’ll wear something pretty and white” still sends multiple shivers down the spine. It’s clear she still holds Lanois in extremely high regard for his role in making the album happen and the repositioning end results, remarking on she remembers how “people thought I had been abducted by aliens, but I had actually just been abducted by a Canadian”. She’s fully at ease on stage and also comments on how she couldn’t wait another year to tour the album on its twentieth anniversary (“everyone does twentieth anniversary tours these days”).
Her impassioned performance of Anna McGarrigle’s Goin’ Back To Harlan is eminently well-suited to the live environment as is Deeper Well which strikes a far grittier tone, affirmed later by Harris when she refers to her vocals being “down in Johnny Cash land there”. The way she delivers Every Grain Of Sand is still closer to the vocal style of Neil Young than of its writer Bob Dylan meanwhile and she follows it with a flawless version of Lucinda Williams’ Sweet Old World, Lanois and Jim Wilson handling the backing vocals originally supplied by Young.
Jimi Hendrix’s May This Be Love sees the application of heavier guitars alongside the slowly soaring contemplation of her vocals while her version of Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl retains its lucid, desperate sadness, her voice steeped in a deep, resonating physical emotion. Still Water, a Daniel Lanois track recorded during the original sessions but not included on the album is inserted into the set and proves a worthy addition. In a way, album closer Waltz Across Texas Tonight brings us up to date, partly being written by Rodney Crowell with whom she collaborated on her latest release, last year’s Old Yellow Moon.
The songs played in the encore only serve to emphasise how different Wrecking Ball must have sounded to her long-term fans back in 1995. Boulder To Birmingham and Calling My Children Home sound like faithfully replicated country standards and are well received (if undoubtedly indicative of a different era Harris) and her cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho And Lefty, a staple of her live shows, is the most impressive of all. Tonight’s show may have been a 2014 performance of a 1995 album that collected tracks from the 1960s to 1990s, but it proved it has an immunity to the effects of time that few others can boast, still sounding as distinct and striking as ever.