Pop Emmylou Harris Jazz Cafe, London

A couple of years ago, Emmylou Harris had been virtually written off. Three broken marriages lay gathering dust on the trail, and after Songs of the West, a competent but unremarkable album, Warners let her go. This has proved to be a mistake. Early last year, Harris joined forces with Quebecois producer Daniel Lanois; the result is Wrecking Ball (Grapevine), a darkly magnificent collection. Harris comes laden with legend - with ex-Byrd Gram Parsons, she pioneered a brooding fusion of country and rock - and, despite its unexpected departures, Wrecking Ball returns to the birth of country, then scarily re-routes it.

At the first of three nights at the Jazz Cafe, Harris was an impossibly charismatic figure. Though she's cropped her startling silver-birch mane, she still looks closer to 19 than 50. It's a ghostly beauty that perfectly fits the apocalyptic air of her new work. All-engulfing maverick Lanois wasn't with her, perhaps a good thing, but his supple bandmates, jazz- based drummer Brian Blades and R&B bassist Daryl Johnson brought a smoky Delta heat and echoing rumble to shadow Harris's unearthly vocal.

A set of seismic proportions went on long into the night, taking in tributes like a laid-back "Love Hurts", her own "Pancho and Lefty" and Marvin Gaye's "Abraham, Martin and John", but Wrecking Ball dominated proceedings. The Neil Young title track, a haunted waltz for sombre, stately skeletons; Steve Earle's desperate "Goodbye", a grainy hymn to lost love on which her growling voice broke against steel guitar and tacit drum rolls; and a cool, shivering take on Hendrix's "Waterfall (May This Be Love)".

But perhaps the evening's stand-out was "Deeper Well". Co-written by Lanois andDave Oiney, the song welds tribal drums, keening slide guitar and cymbals of dry lightning to frame a tale of obsession and addiction, asearch for sustenance in a parched landscape. By turns howling or cynically bitter, Harris's voice was the cry of a spectre after an American armageddon. Working best at a lower register, delivering a disturbing, world-weary clarity and insight, neo-country's rhinestone-free queen took her audience into a smoky twilight zone, proving how visionary a certain sadness can be.

GLYN BROWN

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