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Emmylou Harris and friends play DPAC

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DURHAM -- "We're gonna leave you with another sad song," Emmylou Harris announced with a smile and a bit of a shrug just before the final song of her Saturday night show with Rodney Crowell at Durham Performing Arts Center. "It's just what we do."

"So sad, it'll make you happy," Crowell added, and they started in on "Love Hurts." Yes, it does.

There's no one better at evoking heartbroken grief than Harris, who Crowell admiringly described as "a soul poet with the voice of an angel and the heart of a cowgirl." Elder stateswoman of Americana music, Harris is a singer whose best medium is the vocal duet. Sort of like Julia Child cooking up beef bourginon or Justin Timberlake hosting "Saturday Night Live," singing duets from the business end of romantic tragedy is what Harris was put on this earth to do.

Of course, there were a few songs Saturday night where it was mostly just Harris on the microphone, which was heavy -- too much of Harris alone in her full-on emotive quaver mode can almost be too intense to bear. If you can hear her sing the late great Townes Van Zandt lament "Pancho and Lefty" without misting up, well, you're a better man than I am.

But most of the show found Harris dueting with Crowell, her longtime friend and associate going back to his days playing in her Hot Band in the mid-1970s. The 23-song setlist dipped into many of his compositions from over the years, including "'Til I Gain Control Again," "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight" and "I Ain't Living Long Like this."

Opening act Richard Thompson joined the headliners for an onstage cameo on the latter song. His hour-long opening set had been very fine and quite droll (even his between-song "Thank you"'s were funny), long on guitar fireworks that made his instrument sound like a cast of thousands. But that was nothing compared to Thompson's guitar duel on "Long" with Jedd Hughes, the hotshot young Australian guitarist in the Harris/Crowell band. Hughes did better than most mortals and more than held his own, but Thompson's casual virtuosity still had him shaking his head in wonder afterward.

After a two-song nod to the late Gram Parsons (still Harris' best-ever duet partner) on the opening "Return of the Grievous Angel" and "Wheels," a good chunk of Saturday night's set came from Harris and Crowell's new album "Old Yellow Moon" (Nonesuch Records). They covered nine of its 12 songs, hitting the mark with Patti Scialfa's "Spanish Dancer," Kris Kristofferson's "Chase the Feeling" and a bluesy take on the Hank DeVito co-write "Black Caffeine," driven by Byron House's upright bass.

Naturally, it was the sad ones that lingered strongest afterward, especially Matraca Berg's "Back When We Were Beautiful" -- a looking-back-in-wistful-anguish ballad that went straight to the heartstrings. Harris showed an almost agonizing sense of vulnerability, and that willingness to put herself out there emotionally is what makes Harris one of the greats.

All that, and she's got a sense of humor. Early in the show, the "Old Yellow Moon" portion of the program kicked off with "Hanging Up My Heart," on which Harris' narrator vowed that she's swearing off of romance. But as the song faded, Harris threw out a reassuring quip: "Not really."


South By Southwest 2013: Day three

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AUSTIN, Texas -- From a distance, South By Southwest looks like a seething mass (or mess) of cacophony, with thousands of bands playing and tens of thousands of people rushing around. But there are still plenty of quiet and incredibly pleasant little pockets to it. The trick, however, is that they're off the grid and you have to Know Someone.

This is my 26th (!) SXSW, so yeah, I know a few people by now. And so it was that I got to tag along to a private mid-day party Friday at a palatial house dubbed "The Castle," which was actually an old stone church. It had been converted into a fascinatingly odd dwelling that seemed equal parts salon and art gallery with fine artwork and deer antlers on the wall. Just being there was a treat, even if I never got over feeling very out-of-place. I wondered if any of the other 50 or so attendees felt the same way.

The occasion was singer-songwriter Patty Griffin showing off a few songs from her new album American Kid, and they all passed the "memory test" of being memorable enough to linger afterward. She played solo, jingle-jangle guitar plus stomping foot and deeply emotive singing. The cool thing about seeing people play unadorned and up-close like this is you really do appreciate just how good they are. Griffin has one of those voices that just pierces, every quaver translating into a shiver once it hits you. It was a pretty stunning display.

Elsewhere Friday, I saw Griffin's sometime singing partner Emmylou Harris with Rodney Crowell (coming to DPAC March 30 with Richard Thompson); preppy Afrobeat band Vampire Weekend; the very fine Los Angeles band Dawes (opening for Bob Dylan in Raleigh in May, word to the wise); and Divine Fits, the new local Austin supergroup led by Britt Daniel from Spoon. There was also platinum punk-pop band Green Day, playing one of the cattle-call "Big Shows" that have become a SXSW staple in recent years (Prince and Justin Timberlake are two of this year's other big names).

Green Day was fun as always, but my favorite part of it was actually before they even started playing. The pre-show selection right before that was Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," which turned into a "Wayne's World" re-enactment with the audience howling along every word. That segued into the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop," and everybody kept right on bouncing. Then the lights went down, Ennio Morricone's "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" theme went up, the band came out and everybody went nuts. Good, stupid fun.

Nevertheless, for all the glitz of the big-name stuff and VIP parties, the heart of SXSW remains the young hopefuls who come from all over the world hoping to be heard. Friday afternoon, I wandered into another off-the-grid club called Firehouse Lounge, where a British punk band called Young Guns was expending an arena's worth of energy to play for maybe a dozen people. Most of the audience consisted of other bands and the club's bartenders, but it didn't matter.

"We traveled 5,000 miles to be here and whether we play for 10 people or 10,000, we're gonna have a good time," declared the band's frontman with absolutely winning, charming earnestness. "South By Southwest is a new thing and we are very, very happy to be here!"

Next song, the bartender nodded along in approval as the band bashed away. The music industry and the rest of the world may be falling apart, but the dream lives on. How can anyone not love this?

South By Southwest 2013: Days one-two

AUSTIN, Texas -- Last year, after Bruce Springsteen gave a South By Southwest keynote speech for the ages, I remember pitying whoever had the unenviable task of following that. But it turned out I needn't have worried. For 2013, the SXSW braintrust put the keynote into the capable hands of Dave Grohl.

The Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters main man is a decent songwriter, an incredible drummer and by most accounts a thoroughly decent chap. And like Springsteen, he's also a music fan who has never forgotten what it's like to be outside looking in -- and to want something so bad it drives you almost insane. Grohl got the brass ring with Nirvana, and it is to his immense credit that he understands and appreciates just what a charmed career he has had.

After some preliminary music by Black Violin (a pretty amazing young group combining jumped-up rock and flowing beats with violin and cello -- wow), Grohl ambled out to greet the crowd, donning reading glasses as he fretted that he hoped he "still looked like a rock star." That set the tone for an entertaining and self-effacing spiel in which Grohl traced his career from his early Road-to-Damascus experience via the 1973 Edgar Winter instrumental hit "Frankenstein" -- which Grohl performed a capella, Bobby McFerrin-style, quite capably. He also told some tales about his old punk-rock days, evoking the joy of the do-it-yourself life: "There was no right and there was no wrong because it was all mine."

That was an inspiring thought to carry outside into the beautiful Austin sunshine. Thursday was the kind of bucolic spring day that suckers people into moving here, which they regret once the scorching heat of August kicks in. But Thursday was perfect weather for finding a good spot to sit outdoors and listen to music.

Emphasis there on "sit," as in don't move around unless you have to. South By Southwest has become almost unmanageably huge nowadays, drawing throngs of people numbering in the tens of thousands, many of them credential-less kids on spring break. It's just about impossible to scurry around and see everything you'd want to -- or anything at all, sometimes. Pretty much the entire city was gridlocked Wednesday night, and I had a frustrating evening in which I spent a lot more time standing in lines that weren't moving than actually seeing bands.

Thursday had to be better, and it was. Following Grohl's keynote, I staked out a comfortable outdoor spot at the Threadgill's beer garden and took in some old favorites including John Hiatt, a cat who has truly turned into the cool old blues troubadour he always wanted to be; Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, two fine journeyman enjoying late-career surges (among Miller's recent production credits is the Grammy-nominated "Leaving Eden" by Triangle stringband Carolina Chocolate Drops); and Richard Thompson, who never ceases to astonish. Thompson played magical guitar that somehow evoked everything from bagpipes on a misty morn' to divebombing Stukas.

Later on indoors, I caught another old favorite, Austin's own True Believers. SXSW has gotten so huge that every available space gets turned into a music venue, including some that shouldn't. The Believers played in a bike shop owned by Lance Armstrong, an odd and acoustically atrocious venue made even odder by all the pictures of the disgraced bike-racing icon on the walls. Nevertheless, the Believers just flat blew the roof off the joint with a blast of '80s glam-punk that has aged supremely well. It was the first time I'd seen them since...1994. I am delighted to report that they've not lost a step.

Another post-sundown highlight was Hiss Golden Messenger, working handle of Chapel Hill's M.C. Taylor, who played solo acoustic in a downtown Austin church and joked that he just doesn't play anything more uptempo than an amble. But his lyrical sentiments are just lacerating ("Heaven is the cruelest of 'em all" being just one"), sung in a plainspoken and quiet voice over exquisite acoustic guitar. It's difficult to describe what it is that makes him so affecting. He just is. There's a new album coming and it's great. More later.

This weekend will bring lots more March madness, including some possible opportunities to see a few big-name party-crashers who were announced at the last minute: Prince, Green Day and Justin Timberlake. The marketing goes on. But there's more magic in SXSW's smaller moments, like Hiss Golden Messenger playing for a few dozen attentive folks in a church.

Warm-weather country comfort on the way

Big country shows are pretty much the lifeblood of Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek -- as in just about the only thing keeping the city-owned amphitheater still going at this point. So here's a big chunk of the venue's 2013 schedule, its Country Megaticket of big arena-country acts coming to Walnut Creek this year. Pre-sales start on Tuesday and prices range from $199 to $799.

Tim McGraw, Brantley Gilbert, Love and Theft (May 4)
Kenny Chesney, Eli Young Band, Kacey Musgraves (May 23)
Brad Paisley, Chris Young, Lee Brice (June 8)
Luke Bryan, Thompson Square, Florida Georgia Line (July 13)
Keith Urban, Little Big Town, Dustin Lynch (July 26)
Blake Shelton, Easton Corbin, Jana Kramer (Aug. 9)
Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley (Aug. 24)
Jason Aldean, Jake Owen, Thomas Rhett (Sept. 13)
Rascal Flatts, The Band Perry (Sept. 27)

Meanwhile, Durham Performing Arts Center has also unveiled a choice country-leaning booking: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell with Richard Thompson Electric Trio, playing DPAC on March 30. If you don't get in on any of the pre-sales, tickets go on sale Jan. 25.

A.M.E. Zion Church to announce initiative to help Wake's black male students

The leadership of the Eastern N.C. Episcopal Diocese of the A.M.E. Zion Church says it will announce tonight "the launching of a special Wake County School Initiative for Economically –Disadvantaged Students with a targeted focus on reaching the Black Male."

The announcement will come during an 8:30 p.m. news conference at Rush Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church, 558 East Cabarrus St. in Raleigh.

In addition, organizers say the event is meant to show they're "renewing their commitment to fight the abandonment of the socio-economic diversity policy which will lead to high poverty, racially identifiable public schools in Wake County."


Robert Plant plays Raleigh

Classic-rock deity Robert Plant played Raleigh Wednesday night, still following the idiosyncratic path of misty mountain twang that his muse has been leading him down for the past few years. Click on through for the review; and check the photo gallery.

Piedmont Episcopal District of AME Zion Church backing NAACP march

The Piedmont Episcopal District of the AME Zion Church has joined in backing the July 20 NAACP rally and opposing the Wake County school board's elimination of the diversity policy.

In a Tuesday press release, Bishop George W. Walker, Sr., leader of the Piedmont district, said he was standing "in support of the North Carolina NAACP's call in opposition to resegregation." Walker had made the announcement at this week's annual meeting of the national NAACP in Kansas City.

Bishop Thompson calls on "moral army" to oppose end of diversity policy

Bishop Richard K. Thompson issued a call to action to his church's "moral army" Thursday night while challenging the Wake County school board majority and those who support them.

Thompson, the leader of the 40,000-member Eastern NC District of the AME Zion Church, cast his support for the old diversity policy as being the morally correct position. He urged the school board majority to step back from the "dangerous road" it's taking, which he called a "recipe for disaster."

"To the Wake County school board and other municipalities in the state, we are opposed to any policies, overt or covert, that will lead to the resegregation of public schools," Thompson said. "I want you to hear us. We will not go away. July 20 is not the end. It's the beginning."

A.M.E. Zion Church members urged to pray about Wake school diversity fight

Local members of the A.M.E. Zion Church are being urged to pray as they prepare to take part in the July 20 mass demonstration against the end of the Wake County school diversity policy.

In a press release today, Bishop Richard K. Thompson, Presiding Prelate of The Eastern North Carolina Episcopal District of The A.M.E. Zion Church, has called on his members to attend a "solemn assembly and prayer vigil." The vigil will start at 7 p.m. Thursday at Saint Mark A.M.E. Zion Church, 531 South Roxboro Street, Durham.

The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, will be the special guest speaker on Thursday.

Churches around state backing NAACP in fight against Wake school board

The state NAACP is lining up more non-Evangelical Christian groups to oppose the Wake County school board majority's elimination of the socioeconomic diversity policy.

As noted in today's Durham News religion column by Flo Johnston, a group calling itself the  Concerned Clergy of Durham plans to release a statement Friday in opposition to the changes being planned in Wake County. They're following up on the actions of the Wake County Clergy Coalition.

“We need to be more active, not sitting around twiddling our thumbs while the potential for re-segregation is coming into play again," said the Rev. Marilyn Hedgpeth, an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Durham. "I hope we have learned from our past not to go there again."


Changed to show that Barber's denomination is part of the Disciples of Christ International. Link also changed for denomination website.

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