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Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Richard Thompson Rock Symphony Center

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 21, 2013 6:00PM

Photos copyright Todd Rosenberg / Chicago Symphony Orchestra

At 65, Emmylou Harris’s voice isn’t what it was during her 1970s commercial heyday, but it’s still a force of nature, as she proved Wednesday night at Symphony Center with her old Hot Band partner-in-crime Rodney Crowell. The high notes aren’t as high and the timbre is weathered but, like Muhammad Ali used the rope-a-dope technique in the boxing ring, Harris has turned the ravages of time into strengths. She lets her voice crack and fade attempting to hit notes she had no trouble doing even a decade ago, delivers some lyrics in hoarse whispers, and experiments with different phrasings to accommodate her diminished range. The result is a mesmerizing performance that had a packed Symphony Center rapt with amazement and admiration.

Harris and Crowell started rolling after the beginning of their set was derailed by technical difficulties. Once those were remedied, the two drew heavily from their new album Old Yellow Moon, which showcased Crowell’s songwriting ability, Harris’ knack for finding great songs to interpret and that the magic of their harmony vocals is still intact 39 years later. Harris’ backing vocals on Crowell’s “Earthbound” complemented the freefall backing beat provided by the rhythm section of bassist Byron House and drummer Jerry Roe. “Tragedy,” a Harris original from 2000’s Red Dirt Girl, was transformed into a heartbreaking duet courtesy of Crowell’s Texas twang. But the undeniable highlight of the show was opener Richard Thompson joining Harris and Crowell onstage to trade guitar solos with Jedd Hughes on “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.” Harris’ bands, from her 70’s Hot Band to the Buddy Miller-anchored Spyboy that spurred her ‘90s career redefinition, have always been muscular units capable of connecting genres. This band, which also featured her old Hot Band pedal steel player Steve Fishell, was no exception.

Photos copyright Todd Rosenberg / Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Thompson whetted the audience’s appetite by fronting a power trio that filled Symphony Center with pure rock. Bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome provided a solid, flexible backbeat for Thompson to engage in the fleet-fingered fretboard runs that routinely lands him on the lists of rock’s great guitarists. Prodaniuk and Jerome provided a simple, pulsing rhythm and their own impressive harmony vocals for “Good Things Happen to Bad People” from Thompson’s new album Electric and effortlessly embraced funk on “You Can’t Win.” Thompson exchanged the Stratocaster for an acoustic for the classic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” If all White Dude Bands sounded like Thompson, the world wouldn’t have to worry about White Dude Bands.