Austin "You're seeing our spring training; this is only the second time we've played the album all the way through," said Emmylou Harris, pausing between songs Friday at the IFC Crossroads House. The space, tucked away in downtown Austin, is one of literally dozens of corporate-sponsored performance areas that pop up throughout the city every year, bringing with them all manner of rising and established artists. Harris, who has appeared a few places around Austin (including a Thursday night bill with Dallas' Old 97's), is gearing up to release Hard Bargain, her first album since 2008, in April. Like so many others, she's using SXSW as a chance to hone the new stuff and stoke interest for the record.
Friday, I had a chance, along with just a few others, to take in a complete performance of Hard Bargain, which was streamed live on IFC's website and recorded for future broadcast on the cable channel. About 50 of us crowded into the sweltering studio, where Harris and her two bandmates ran through songs -- in some cases, a couple times; Big Black Dog required re-starts because Harris kept getting distracted -- "I miss my dogs!" -- that were, frankly, breathtaking in their beauty.
Dripping with reverb-soaked guitar, spare instrumental flourishes and Harris's singular voice, the songs, which include the titular cover of Ron Sexsmith's Hard Bargain, traverse some melancholy territory. There's a reflection upon her time with Gram Parsons (The Road) and a shattering farewell to her late friend Kate McGarrigle (Darlin' Kate) that rests alongside a paean to the love demonstrated by her parents (The Ship on His Arm).
Harris, maintaining a self-deprecating air throughout ("They're gonna fire me and get another singer," she said at one point, after starting a song over), shared a little of the meaning behind a few of the tunes, making the 80-minute set feel a little like VH1's Storytellers. It was a magical experience, one which stripped away everything but the performer and the song, and an undeniable highlight of my time in Austin this year.