When Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell took the stage at the College of Charleston’s TD Arena, treating the Spoleto audience to a lively version of the Lucinda Williams’ tune “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” the pace was quick and the pleasure the singers took performing together was clear. Harris and Crowell, whose second album as a duo, The Traveling Kind, was released earlier this month, have shared plenty of stages since Crowell joined Harris’ Hot Band in the 1970s, but the pair only got around to collaborating as co-headliners in 2013 with the release Old Yellow Moon.
The set performed by Harris and Crowell, backed-up flawlessly by a five-piece band, featured songs from both albums, in addition to material that stretched back to their early careers. Harris, who worked closely with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons before his early death,and subsequently recorded multiple versions of many songs he performed, made sure to include a few Parsons tunes, most stirringly “Wheels.” She and Crowell peppered the set with originals, co-writes, and covers, varying the pace and mood throughout. Neither was shy about acknowledging their age or experience, and a number of the songs addressed the themes of growing older and looking back, from a few different perspectives.
One highlight was a jaunty version of Crowell’s own tune, “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” which appeared on his debut album and has subsequently been recorded by everyone from Harris to Waylon Jennings. Everyone on stage projected genuine enthusiasm, and it and the other more upbeat numbers sprinkled throughout the sent kept the energy level up. On many of the numbers, Harris and Crowell shared vocals, mirroring and bolstering one another, while on others, such as the Townes Van Zant classic “Pancho and Lefty,” they took a more traditional duet approach for at least part of the song.
Harris, at 68 years of age, possesses a crystalline voice that is instantly recognizable and singularly powerful. A version of “Love Hurts,” a Boudleaux Bryant ballad which Harris sang with Parsons back on the 1973 album Grievous Angel, brought more than a few in the Arena to tears. Delivered at just the right spot in the set, after a wry and rollicking version of Crowell’s “Rock of My Soul,” it was a high point among high points.
The band walked offstage after performing “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” providing what would have been a fitting end to an evening of music that honored the past while very much living in the present. They returned for a brief two-song encore — one last Parsons song, “Hickory Wind,” and the title track to Old Yellow Moon — and then took a final bow. Hopefully, it won’t be the last time Harris and Crowell will share a Charleston stage.