Live Last Night: Three Girls and Their Buddy

Musician's-musician Buddy Miller reclaimed his "Wide River to Cross" from Levon Helm, for whom it helped to win a Grammy. Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin, and Emmylou Harris joined their crystalline, haunting voices on the Depression-era gospel of "We Shall All Be Reunited." Colvin covered Miller's cover of Richard Thompson's "Keep Your Distance," then followed it up with, er, Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." (And that ubiquitous 2006 uber-smash was one of the only songs of the night not greeted with a cheer of recognition. Only at the Birchmere!)

So what do you want from a concert, anyway?

A: All of that and more, please.

Like, 30 to 60 minutes more. Of music, not foreplay. It's the economy, stupid!

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

The premise of the "Three Girls and Their Buddy" tour that kicked off at the Birchmere last night sounds like a can't-miss. Its four venerable all-stars of Americana have variously played in one another's bands, sang each other's songs, guested on or produced each other's albums, or all of the above. An informal, "Storytellers"-style round-robin among musicians with so much chemistry and history and mutual regard? Sign us up! But if the concept was tantalizingly New Pornographers, the execution -- on this opening night of the tour, anyway -- was more Damn Yankees.

Griffin had the best night of the four, offering two gorgeous, as-yet-unreleased songs from her upcoming Miller-produced album, and also standing in vocally for Buddy's wife and frequent collaborator Julie Miller on "All My Tears" and "Chalk." At 44, Griffin is the kid of this bunch by almost a decade, so that's not just an embarrassment of chops on stage; it's also a wealth of shared musical experience. Each of the four singer/songwriters could fill the club solo, which probably explains the $110 ticket price. And with two nights sold out, it's hard to argue that $110 is too much.

Still, the show was a bit overpriced because banter ate up a quarter of the 110-minute running time. It was funny and even touching (Emmylou's romantic history lesson about Sara and A.P. Carter preceding "How She Could Sing the Wildwood Flower," for instance), right up until it wasn't. Everyone but Colvin made at least one nervous joke about talking too much. After one particularly meandering gabfest, Miller sighed, "Even a song from me would be a relief at this point." Of course, then he went on to nail "Wide River," a contender for performance of the night. All in, each artist only sang lead on five or six songs -- not exactly a tough day at the office, much less in the cotton fields.

The foursome's respect and affection for one another was evident, but so was the fact that none had given much thought to how the show ought to proceed. (And the audience? Reverent and forgiving, though there was some post-show grumbling in the lobby about the surfeit of tunes.) Harris admitted they hadn't rehearsed, saying no one on stage knew what any of the others would play when it got to be his or her turn. Except for the finale, presumably -- that gospel song -- which Colvin and Harris sang from lyric sheets. (Griffin and Miller had just recorded it together, so they knew it.) It was a glorious performance; soaring, transcendent, and timeless, like the whole evening could -- and should -- have been.


(Miller, Harris, Griffin and Colvin will perform again at the Birchmere tonight; the show is sold out.)

By J. Freedom du Lac |  February 4, 2009; 1:28 PM ET Live Last Night
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Emmylou, Patty, and Buddy will be in Baltimore at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on the 19th. I sampled the tickets available today - top price $78 - and was shown the box seats on the side, an elegant way to enjoy the show at a bargain basement price,compared to the Birchmere tickets. Lower cost seats also available.

Posted by: emmylunatic | February 5, 2009 11:53 AM

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