Ghostly but grounded, “Wrecking Ball” is an album full of shadows and light with all sorts of cracks for a voice such as Emmylou Harris’s to slip in and out of. Play it today and it sounds as evergreen as it did nearly 20 years ago.
When Harris, taking a detour away from the country and folk albums she had made up until that point, released “Wrecking Ball” in 1995, she was at a creative standstill. Radio wasn’t playing her at the time – not that it ever did all that much – but she was ready for a new adventure. “Wrecking Ball” ended up changing the course of Harris’s career, rewiring our perceptions of what she was about and winning her a new generation of fans in the process.
Coinciding with a deluxe new reissue of that landmark album, Harris revisited “Wrecking Ball” Sunday night at the House of Blues with the producer largely responsible for shaping its contours. Daniel Lanois, who initially made his name working with U2 and Bob Dylan, headed up a lithe backing trio that included Steven Nistor on drums and Jim Wilson on bass and supporting vocals.
Of the handful I’ve seen over the years, it was among the most spare and intimate performances Harris has ever given. She was at ease but also invested in the material and the way it evokes softer hues from her. The title track, written by Neil Young, was Harris at her most sensual, cooing a refrain that still sounds endlessly romantic: “Meet me at the Wrecking Ball/ I’ll wear something pretty and white/ And we’ll go dancing tonight.”
The foursome played “Wrecking Ball” in its entirety and in its original song order, but Harris saved the storytelling till the end of the evening. At times that decision made the show a bit static; the whole idea of hearing a full album performed live is that we want to know how it was made, what it meant to the artist. Harris isn’t much of a talker, though, and she let the songs do it for her, from the spectral sadness of Steve Earle’s “Goodbye” to the tender seduction of Lucinda Williams’s “Sweet Old World.”
Lanois, who also opened the show, added subtle, essential textures on backing vocals, guitar, and occasionally electric mandolin. Harris admitted she had wanted to collaborate with him after hearing his work on Dylan’s “Oh Mercy” and Lanois’s own debut solo album, “Acadie.” As part of the encore, the band performed a song from that record, “Still Water,” sounding as otherworldly and out of time as ever.