It was the middle of the 1990s, when Emmylou Harris’s country-rock career was in a rut. At age 48, she had been selflessly serving song for quite some time, but her record label didn’t know how to sell her and radio wasn’t much interested in her, either. She was looking for something new; Elektra gave her a long leash to find it. She found Daniel Lanois.
On Tuesday night at Toronto’s Massey Hall, Harris was in warm reunion with Lanois, the star Canadian producer and architect behind Wrecking Ball, Harris’s Grammy-winning comeback album from 1995. The show, a celebration of their collaboration, featured the soulful performance of the entire record, with extras at the end.
Harris, an elegant silver-haired cowgirl, told a few stories about the making of the classic album, but mostly she sang, her voice marked by frailty wrapped in poise – a high, breathy accent followed by firmer phrase. “Ready for the winnin’, ready for the bell,” she sang, “Lookin’ for the water from a deeper well.”
Speaking with Harris a few weeks before the show, I mentioned Wrecking Ball’s themes of lament and spirituality. “That’s kind of my wheelhouse,” she said, laughing a bit. She talked about All My Tears, a haunting ode to the afterlife that was the first song recorded for the album. “I knew right there that something special was happening,” she said, from Nashville. “The atmosphere and turbulent rhythms were inspiring. All I had to do was sing.”
The left-field Wrecking Ball album, which placed her gossamer, lucid vocals inside Lanois’s shimmering sonics, ringing guitar tones and earthy grooves, has been newly reissued as remastered two-disc set, with a documentary DVD added to the package. Record labels have found small piles of gold in these kinds of legacy reissues, which are cheaper to make than new albums and have an established audience ready and willing to buy them. Artists have embraced the trend of revisiting past albums, as it gives them a new selling point and an explanation for touring.
So, the Who puts out 1973’s conceptual Quadrophenia again and hits the road to support it by performing the album in full. The reunited Pixies don’t reissue 1989’s Doolittle, but commemorate its 20th anniversary by performing it track-for-track, top-to-bottom. Peter Frampton’s old label resurrects his breakthrough Frampton Comes Alive! LP from 1976 with a 25th-anniversary edition in 2001. Frampton later tours the record.
Wrecking Ball’s revival seems less about marketing, however. This year isn’t a benchmark birthday. At Massey, Harris noted the record’s 19th year: “We couldn’t wait ’til the 20th anniversary.”
Oh, they probably could have waited; the time would always be right for this, be it this year or last, or five years from now. Harris, backed by Lanois’s “triangle” – more hypnotic than Bermuda’s, with guitarist Lanois, drummer Steven Nistor and bassist and occasional high-harmony vocalist Jim Wilson – was the gauzy belle of the ball.
Lanois shared harmonies with her on Blackhawk, a song he wrote, about Hamilton’s steel-mill blast furnaces and the way we were – he the black hawk, she the white-winged dove. The show ended with just that pair, together for a poignant reading of The Songbird, a eulogy for the song’s writer and original singer, Jesse Winchester, who died on April 11.
In his autobiography, Soul Mining, Lanois recalled a moment in the studio when he played Neil Young the tape of their version of the album’s title song, a Young composition. “He rose to his feet, and slow-danced with his wife, Pegi, who had joined him on this trip,” Lanois wrote. “I was touched and took it as a sign that Neil approved of our rendition.”
At Massey, performing the lovely, hazy Wrecking Ball, Harris sang in a delicate drawl: “I’ll wear something pretty and white, and we’ll go dancin’ tonight.”
Meet them at the ball, then – no reason and no occasion, except for another chance to dance the dance. It was that way for Harris in 1995, and it absolutely still is.