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August 31, 2004
Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue
August 15, 2004
Though Emmylou Harris had top billing, the rain was the star of the show when the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue came to Portsmouth on the heels of Tropical Storms Bonnie and Charley. Obviously, the nTelos Pavilion at Harbor Center has yet to recover from last year’s Hurricane Isabel damage, and the result was a wet, miserable night for a couple of thousand people who got to share the lawn experience at orchestra prices.
Fortunately for those in attendance, the venue was anything but sold out. Consequently, some folks whose tickets were in the front rows chose to move to dryer ground further back. Others chose to wade it out, getting soaked in the process. Since umbrellas were not allowed to be used once the show began, there were no other choices.
Musically, the concert started with great promise. The whole ensemble---Emmylou, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, Patty Griffin---joined in for “Hello Stranger” from Harris’ classic 1977 album Luxury Liner, then slipped into the Phil Spector girl-group chestnut, “To Know Him is to Love Him.” The ladies’ three-part harmony on the latter was gorgeous.
From there, the show took on the ambience of a hootenanny or perhaps a party at a friend’s house. Each of the billed performers did a half-hour solo set, with the others appearing in various combinations to lend some vocal harmony support or instrumental coloring.
Surprisingly, Emmylou went first, joined by her “next door neighbor” Miller on electric guitar. Commenting that “I used to live here,” she did a seven-song mini-set that included “Red Dirt Girl,” Bob Dylan’s “Oh Sister,” “My Antonia” and “Orphan Girl.” A foster dog mother back home in Nashville, she praised the work of PETA, mentioned that she once wrote a song called “Norfolk, Virginia,” and closed her set with a beautiful bit of open-tuned acoustic guitar.
When Buddy Miller took over the stage, the atmosphere shifted from campfire to smoky bar. His electrified country blues wore thin after a few numbers, but many in the crowd enjoyed the enthusiasm he brought to his own rootsy material as well as songs by Tom T. Hall and the Louvin Brothers. Gillian Welch strapped on the bass to join in the ultimate bar band workout, “You Can’t Judge a Book (By Looking at the Cover).”
After the three women essayed “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, Welch and her husband Dave Rawlings, proceeded with their set. This is where the concert really bogged down. Rawlings played a lot of sloppy hot licks, missing his intended notes from time to time, but Welch has a wonderful voice. The material was pretty draggy, though, and the night never recovered.
Patty Griffin’s set had more life to it, but by the time she commandeered the stage, many in the crowd were worn out from the rain and the dreariness of much of the preceding material. And since most of the audience had come for Emmylou Harris, there was a great deal of disappointment that she didn’t do more herself.
As the encores faded, one couldn’t help but wonder what the people who run the Pavilion are thinking. The roof is obviously not ready. Does it need time to cure? Perhaps the design itself is flawed. Why were there leaks, drips and deluges in the middle of a covered area?
I love the Pavilion for its size and friendly feeling on a dry summer evening. But it should not be used for “rain or shine” bookings until its tarp-like roof has been installed properly.
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