Emmylou Harris, Vector Arena Theatre Mode, Sunday November 18 CONCERT REVIEW

VECTOR ARENA DIRECTOR Stuart Clumpas chose one of his favourite performers, Emmylou Harris, to usher in the new Theatre Mode setting, and he chose well: Harris and her band, seasoned performers all, were able to project an intimacy that makes the audience forget it’s sitting in a cleverly disguised mini-Vector.
Theatre Mode is a slight misnomer, as it conjures images (to a New Zealand audience, at least) of a venue fitting between a few hundred and a thousand bodies. In fact, it can accommodate up to 3000, which means it’s still a large venue, and a practical solution for all of those acts who command bigger audiences than, say the Town Hall, but run short of full arena pulling power.
Having attended the Yes show at what some referred to as “half-a-Vector” earlier this year, Theatre Mode is a huge step-up in atmosphere and level of presentation, and it seemed to work a treat for the almost-full house.
Members of the local alt-country music fraternity, the Gunslingers Ball, provided musical backing for short sets by three different local acts, starting at 7.30 with NZ-based expat Canadian Tami Neilson, who cheerfully admitted to still carrying some body baggage from recently giving birth. She was fabulous, peppering her set with hilarious between-song banter that made her look like a country and western Anika Moa. The two could certainly work up a great stand-up routine together. Neilson is a dab hand at live performance, having grown up performing around Canada with her all-singing, all-playing family, and she’s got the kind of big, boisterous voice that is heard too seldom in an age of delicate tweety-birds and male falsettos.

The Bads
The Bads, the duo of Dianne Swann and Brett Adams (some may remember Swann from ‘80s pop confection When The Cats Away, although later she relocated to the UK to work as the Julie Dolphin) have clearly evolved into a dyed-in-the-wool country act over the few years since their debut album, which only hinted at the more earthy sound they now espouse. Unfortunately, Swann’s vocals sounded thin (a problem that would also inflict itself on the first part of Harris’s set) making it hard to get excited about their pleasant but unexciting performance.
Bernie Griffen and The Grifters were another story altogether. The group’s recent album is rather good, but the same songs really come alive onstage. This was anything but hokum country and western: huddled closely together on the large stage, with the drummer standing at a tiny kit and Griffen seated as he belted out his gruff, angry songs, the group churned out a dynamic, edgy, exciting show that burned with gritty power. The opening ‘Southwest Gail’ (where Griffen sounds angry and desperate with each repetition of “I love you”) and the Pike River mining disaster song ’29 Diamonds’ are highlights of a too-short set that seemed like a Lynch-world impression of Neil Young-type rage and Johnny Cash-style dignity, without being at all cravenly copyist.
It would have been hard to top that, and for me, Emmylou Harris and her Red Dirt Boys didn’t quite manage to do so. Taking the stage at 9pm, they performed for a solid two hours, and the repertoire was fairly diverse, ranging from the Gram Parsons-influenced material that made her a perennial alt-country favourite to more down-home country-gal workouts to surprising inclusions of a few formative folk songs, like her rendition of Paul Simon’s ‘The Boxer’ and a tribute to Canadian folk duo Ian and Silvia. Oh, and perhaps too many self-written songs from her most recent (but already two-year-old) album.
She didn’t talk that much in this last date on her world tour, but did pause to say that in electing Barack Obama, America had made the right choice, and used this as an intro to ‘My Name Is Emmett Till’, about the senseless racially motivated murder of a 14-year-old in Mississippi in 1964. She also paused to ruminate on age (she’s recently turned 65) and death, and talked about having been at singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle’s bedside when she died – and sang a poignant song about McGarrigle.
The audience lapped it all up, but I was a little bored a lot of the time. Harris’s band are consummate professionals, and obviously well road tested (and probably incredibly road-weary), but they were so competent that there was little edge to the performances, or any sense of risk-taking. Then again, I know that’s not what the predominantly grey-haired audience came for: they were here to see and listen to the Queen of alt-country do her thing, which means squeezing the essence out of her songs. And that she did.
She certainly still has a voice that is capable of revealing emotional nuance, it’s just that for some unknown reason (The sound engineer? Teething problems with the venue acoustics? Her frayed vocal chords?) for much of the gig her instrument sounded brittle and a bit sibilant. Certainly, Harris’s voice had a loud ‘band’ near the middle of her range, then dropped out with higher notes, regaining itself at the top end of her register. This could have made her a nightmare to mix right on top of a six-piece ensemble. In any case, the best moments for me were the one section where she sang with just two other instruments, and the song that was entirely a cappella, with astounding vocal harmonies from “the three tenors” in the group. That was just breathtaking, and I almost had to gulp back tears at the sheer emotion it elicited.
So… Emmylou Harris. Not entirely my cup of tea, but what a trooper.
Now, Mr Clumpas – how about a Dead Can Dance show, or a Zappa Plays Zappa? Now, that would be something to see in the Theatre Mode. GARY STEEL

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