Quality Belgian ale, good cheese, the woman I love and the music of Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. How could I possibly mind that the show had the feel of a full-fledged dress rehearsal, with its string of first-show-of-tour disclaimers, apologies for rough edges and lyric sheets getting passed around?
The Opening Night of the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue was a relatively laid-back affair. With the sun still shining on Atlanta’s Chastain Park, the alt.country all-stars took the stage together for A.P. Carter’s “Hello Stranger.” Three of the most distinctive voices in music blended beautifully: Welch, who was born in Manhattan and raised in L.A., but whose lonesome tone seems like it’s been aging to perfection in Jack Daniels barrels abandoned in the Tennessee hills since the Depression; Patty Griffin, who, every time she opens her mouth, makes a mockery of American Idol; and Harris, the reigning queen of Americana and de facto leader of this troupe. They were buoyed by the guitar work of Buddy Miller—no slouch himself in the vocal department—and David Rawlings, who Miller, after the show, referred to as “my favorite acoustic guitarist and my favorite electric guitarist.”
The Revue rolled along without interruption between acts. After a few songs with all five artists, Harris took the first set with longtime guitarist Miller by her side. She began with “Red Dirt Girl,” the song that—after a career of discovering and covering the world’s best songs—proved Harris could create one of her own. A highlight of the night was the complete absence of throw-away songs. Griffin and the partnership of Welch and Rawlings alternately joined Harris on stage before she handed the mic over to Miller.
Many in the crowd had hoped Buddy’s wife, Julie, would be joining the Revue for the Atlanta show, and Buddy says she might still make a few nights on the tour, but no such luck at this performance. Still, Miller’s solid set was heavy on tracks from his upcoming gospel-inflected record, Universal United House of Prayer.
With night falling, Welch and Rawlings took their turn wowing the crowd, including a fantastic rendition of “Time the Revelator.” Unfortunately, Harris had already played Welch’s signature “Orphan Girl.” I suppose that was fair enough, considering it was Harris who made the song and its writer famous. Rawlings, in turn, showed why he’s earned the title of Buddy Miller’s favorite guitarist.
The Revue then became the Patty Griffin show, as the little red-haired crooner with the voice of giant brought her full band on stage. Griffin is quite possibly my favorite singer and one of my five favorite songwriters; two factors that reduced me to blathering fan-boy when I got to say hello after the show. “Love Throws A Line,” “Useless Desire,” “Making Pies,” I could’ve sat there and listened to her whole catalog.
Griffin’s backing band then joined the five principal artists for the finale, including the night’s best moment—a rendition of The Band’s “The Weight,” with Harris, Miller, Griffin and Welch all taking turns singing a verse. The encore was limited by a lack of rehearsal time, as Harris came back on stage, saying “I’m not trying to be coy, but we’ve run out of songs.” They made their way through a mostly a cappella traditional song before ending where they began, with a full band version of “Hello Stranger.”
So it was a little unpolished. The sound at this mid-sized outdoor amphitheatre didn’t match up well with the theater environments where I’ve seen some of these artists in the past. But it was a treat to see five great performers who’ve done so much to help shape a new kind of Americana, where the lyrics are moving, the melodies are graceful and the harmonies sweet.