Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell have been mutual admirers since the early 1970s, but only recently got around to making a record they’ve had in mind since then. “Old Yellow Moon” collects songs old and new, cutting across honky-tonk, classic country, ballads, and hell-raisers.
The material was mostly vintage, but their performances on that album, and the glorious one they gave at the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, were hardly relics.
Harris and Crowell, who have always been something of iconoclasts within country music, sound inspired by their recent reunion, and their chemistry shows. With acoustic guitars slung over their shoulders, and a five-piece band behind them, their voices meshed seamlessly at the Orpheum, his a rangy croon, hers as ethereal as smoke rings.
She gave Crowell his due, marveling at the first time she heard his “Bluebird Wine,” which he then performed as if he had just written it. And he returned the sentiment: “She’s got the soul of a poet, the voice of an angel, and the heart of a cowgirl,” he said.
He was right. Harris, a vision of silver hair and black fringe, was particularly animated, digging her boots into the steely blues of “Black Caffeine” and relishing the bittersweet nostalgia of Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful.” “Luxury Liner,” written by one of Harris’s first singing partners, Gram Parsons, had the drive and oomph of her freewheeling ’70s recordings, back when she was playing with the fabled Hot Band.
Her new album with Crowell has a honky-tonk flavor, but they fleshed out its songs with essential licks by Jedd Hughes, who added clean, classic textures on his electric guitar. And there was an inherent poignancy to watching two artists of a certain age interpreting “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” made famous by Waylon Jennings. Their pensive, close-to-the-mike interpretation suggested they understood the song now better than ever. Or, as Harris put it, it was a “conversation with two old friends.”
Richard Thompson, the revered British folk-rock pioneer, was a monster in his opening slot, unhinged and yet completely in control. Backed by a drummer and bassist, and collectively billed as Richard Thompson Electric Trio, Thompson burrowed into his guitar solos, which ranged from twisted and circular to behind the beat and then ahead of it.
Thompson existed outside the realm of his bandmates but was somehow in lockstep with them. On his own, his fingerpicking on the acoustic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” was even more resonant and staggering. The evening’s first standing ovations were rightly his.