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."