I swear I didn't smoke any illicit substances before I headed to Mystic. And I most certainly was not drinking wine out of a jug, classier than that I am (I'll request that the peanut gallery kindly keep all commentary to itself). But Emmylou Harris' Sunday night show at Mystic Lake Casino left me feeling as relaxed as, ahem, if I had.
If you've read me more than once or twice, you've noticed I like to make light of things. It comes more naturally for me to talk about the guy sitting in front of me eating Junior Mints and ignoring the show or about how hot the guitar player looks in his tight jeans than to speak seriously about just about anything truly relevant. Endearing quality, right? But sitting through Harris' set, I felt not quite myself. I felt relaxed. I felt content. I was simply enjoying the performance. Not taking note of the minutiae I usually find distractingly fascinating. I felt anything but punchy. Imagine!
My calm and tranquil mood likely had to do with the ease with which Harris and her backing ensemble, the Red Dirt Boys, presented themselves to the audience - Harris' frequent guitar tuning issues aside, of course, which came off less as frustrating and more as just downright precious. The performance, from musicianship to banter, felt intimate and engaging, even in front of what can often feel like a ho-hum casino audience.
A perennial collaborator whose partners have over the years spanned artists including Gram Parsons, Rodney Crowell, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Earle and even Mark Knopfler, Harris seemed truly at home with her opening act and "Red Dirt Boy" guitarist Buddy Miller. During his brief opener, Miller quipped about his recent open heart surgery following a heart attack he had while onstage with his "Three Girls and Their Buddy" (aw fer cute!) tourmates Harris, Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin, and treated us to material written by him with his wife/songwriting partner Julie Miller, including the somber number "Written in Chalk," backed beautifully by Miller's ethereal guitar.
Harris sneaked onstage without any of the expected pomp and circumstance to join Miller for a couple of his songs, including the old Left Bank hit "Walk Away Renée." Miller, a many-time American Music Award winner (deservedly so) was most certainly a highlight of the evening while performing both with and without Harris, and I'll tell you what, when he makes his way through town again he's not to be missed. And as an aside, my companion and I were amused to find that the shout-out Miller made to a "Kim" in the audience was no other than the Kim who slings drinks at Grumpy's and CC Club, which we discovered after we saw her with two other of our favorite CC servers in tow and she explained she's been instrumental in getting Miller in the jukebox rotation at both bars.
After a brief intermission Harris revisited this stage, this time with a five-piece backing band that included Miller. In the subdued manner that is so characteristically Emmylou, the band took us through a good variety of her more recent material including "Here I Am," "Orphan Girl," "Red Dirt Girl," "Sailing Round the Room," the Ronstadt collaboration "Raise the Dead," a Knopfler collaboration "Love and Happiness," "Jupiter Rising," "Blackhawk," "All That You Have Is Your Soul," "Tulsa Queen," "Green Pastures," "Bang the Drum Slowly," "Shores of White Sand," "The Pearl," and the excellent Billy Joe Shaver cover "Old Five and Dimers Like Me." As always seems to be the case I left wanting for a little more of her older stuff, but she did treat us to "Two More Bottles of Wine," "Born to Run," "Together Again," and, in a single-song encore, her light-hearted rendition of "Save the Last Dance for Me."
Having been to nigh on half a dozen casino shows in the last few months, with their flashing lights and maze-like slots designed to make you lose yourself in the maelstrom of free soda dispensers, jackpot cars, ashtrays and buffets, this is the first time I've left a place in a peaceful, dreamy state rather than my usual overstimulated frenzy. It was a beautiful thing.