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Dave Matthews Band Caravan Mon Jul 11 2011
Emmylou Harris is a goddamn national treasure.
On the final day of the Dave Matthews Band Caravan, the 64-year-old country legend played her afternoon set on the smallest of three stages, acceding to the vagaries of popular taste, but she stood out as by far the most historically significant artist of the weekend.
"One of my personal heroes," Dave Matthews said in a brief introduction before she took the stage Sunday, and it was hard to disagree after Harris and her superb backing band, the Red Dirt Boys, rolled through an inspired selection of bluegrass and gospel favorites with a few songs from her new album.
They might have been the oldest band at the festival, but we saw only the benefits of those 40 years of experience: Emmylou's easy command of the stage and rapport with the crowd, and the impeccable work by her bandmates on guitar, bass, drums, mandolin, violin, piano and accordion.
While some bands this weekend struggled to hold the audience's attention whenever the tempo slowed, Emmylou's clear, soaring voice was more than enough to keep fans from wandering off to the craft beer tent between Rickie Simpkins' virtuoso fiddle runs.
After the opening shuffle of "Six White Cadillacs," the set was loaded with haunting ballads, from Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl" to the Carter Family's "Hello Stranger" and the gospel standard "Green Pastures." The best of a strong bunch was "My Name is Emmett Till," an appropriately stark and powerful ballad about the Chicago teenager murdered in Mississippi in 1955.
Simpkins' mandolin riff on the bouncing closer "Get Up John" was still echoing in my brain as I headed over to the main stage to check out David Gray. I was ripe for a rude awakening.
Where Emmylou and the boys had played one of the weekend's most invigorating sets, Gray offered possibly the limpest. I'm sure he's a nice fellow and all, but it's remarkable how far above his station he has risen with a collection of sound-alike songs suited better for a dentist's office or the more emotional moments of a CW melodrama.
The Englishman's set proceeded amiably at a reasonable volume. Maybe some of it would have worked in a more intimate setting, like a less poetic Damien Rice. But when even the coffeehouse smash "Babylon" failed to show any signs of life, it was time to hunker down and wait for the headliner.
Dave Matthews Band played 61 songs in three nights, all of them different, and Sunday's finale was as strong as the first two. They opened with a concentrated burst of old favorites ("One Sweet World," "Bartender," "Say Goodbye," "The Best of What's Around") that had fans roaring and showcased Jeff Coffin on baritone sax, pennywhistle, flute and alto sax.
Other high points included a reworked "Shotgun" and spirited versions of "Warehouse," "All Along the Watchtower" and "Ants Marching." The band also welcomed fellow Virginian Joe Lawlor for a new cover of Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion," giving them a double-electric punch that rocked hard enough but fell short of Friday's surprisingly capable "Good Times Bad Times" and Saturday's "Burning Down the House." [UPDATE: And I forgot Morphine's "Buena."]
But hey, we can't all be Steven Tyler.