Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and Richard Thompson at the Savannah Music Festival — a short review

Wednesday night, a packed house at Johnny Mercer Theatre was treated to a truly special program: Richard Thompson’s electric trio, followed by headliners Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell backed by an excellent five-piece band.

The SMF obviously brings some great headliners, but how about the skill of the backing musicians? It’s stunning to see how much talent there is out there.

“He’s one of my earliest heroes,” Thompson said of native Savannahian Johnny Mercer. When an audience member yelled out a request for “Moon River”, Thompson laughed and said he wasn’t “as sexy as Audrey Hepburn.”

It was simply thrilling to have this chance to see Thompson, whose work I’ve followed to some degree since the mid-1990s when he was working with his ex Linda. Even thirty years ago, Thompson’s voice had the depth and throatiness of age — and he sounds pretty much the same today.

This wasn’t some walk down memory lane, however. I was especially impressed with Thompson’s newer tune “Salford Sunday” — a beautiful, soulful work.

Other new songs included the rollicking “Good Things Happen to Bad People” and we were treated to a beautiful version of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” performed by Thompson alone with his acoustic guitar.

I would have been content to go home after Thompson’s hourlong set. That’s how satisfying it was to see such a great songwriter and performer on his first Savannah trip.

And let me say a word about the Mercer Theatre, a venue I really dislike. I think I finally figured out where I want to sit there — as far down as possible in the lower mezzanine. We were the equivalent of about the 12th row in the orchestra, and the sound seemed much better up high than it typically is down below.

Old friends Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell seemed especially at ease on stage together as they meandered through a polished set that totaled well over 90 minutes. The total show time of over three hours proved a bit of a challenge for my lagging attention, but how do you tell Emmylou to stop singing? The 66-year old icon still sounds pretty good, and with her mass of white hair is still as striking on stage as ever. While you can hear a bit of age in Harris’ voice, Crowell sounded like he had just hopped off a train in Nashville with a guitar slung over his shoulder, dreaming of the big time.

Harris and Crowell sang a number of songs from their new album Old Yellow Moon, plus works that reached back decades. Some songs counted for both categories, like “Bluebird Wine”, written by Crowell and recorded by Harris almost 40 years ago. The latest recording can be found on the new album, which the pair had oddly sold out of before Wednesday’s show in Savannah.

I loved the band’s rendition of “Pancho and Lefty”, Patty Scialfa’s “Spanish Dancer”, “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, and “Chase the Feeling” by Kris Kristofferson. Harris took the lead vocal on the beautiful “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose” by Susanna Clark, who died in 2012 at age 73.

After the three song encore, Harris came back on stage with two rescue dogs that looked unfazed by the attention. She urged everyone to adopt rescued animals. After noting that she had saved them, she added, “And they saved me too.”