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Story and photos by Matt SchwenkeAdmitting to delivering an awkward national anthem at a Brewer's game nearly twenty years ago while in town for a Summerfest performance, Emmylou Harris had no such technical difficulties in her first return performance in Milwaukee since and revealed a voice that showed no age with her 60th birthday just days away.
While peppered with bass by Chris Donahue, guitar and effects from Pam Rose, and percussion and mandolin by Milwaukee native Mary Ann Kennedy, the performance relied heavily upon stripped-down acoustic arrangements. The simple arrangements befit what Harris said was a penchant for sad folk songs and proved most spectacular when the three women gathered around a single mic for a cappella takes on "Didn't Leave Nothin' But the Baby" and "Bright Morning Stars Are Rising" in a rural tradition a la "O Brother Where Art Thou?".
From her 2000 release Red Dirt Girl, Harris' voice was engaging in the title track, soothing in "Michelangelo" and pleading in "The Pearl" while the energy level remained relaxed throughout. Harris' take on the Band's "Evangeline" and Brian Ahern's "Spanish Is A Loving Tongue" rearranged the songs towards her style while versions of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" and Paul Simon's "The Boxer" seemed written for her voice and were performed truer to form.
With a gentle grace and humility behind her brilliant voice, Harris' effect on the crowd was evident early on and especially when the crowd sang Happy Birthday upon Harris' return to the stage for an encore. Returning the gift of song, Harris left the crowd with the Drifters' "Save The Last Dance For Me."
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