POP / Statue of longevity: Jasper Rees sees Emmylou Harris move while standing still

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Still photography scarcely does justice to the stillness of Emmylou Harris. Performing a repertoire of folkish country songs that cover three basic moods - heartache, heartbreak and cardiac apocalypse - it would be kind of churlish to fling herself around and appear to have fun. She allowed herself one jig at London's Royal Festival Hall, but, generally speaking, statues have swapped guitars between songs with less statuesqueness. They just haven't sounded as good.

When she dedicated an all but a cappella song to the new-born baby of her promoter, it turned out to deal with the irreparable breakdown of communication between parent and child. Thanks, Emmylou. You can be godmother any time.

Silver-haired, deep into her forties, and recently delivered of a 22nd album (her first since parting with Warners), that's pretty much what she is. She may not compose her own songs, but she was present at the cauldron in which Gram Parsons cooked up country rock, and hasn't stopped being creative with others' material. To begin the second stretch of a two-and-a- half-hour show, she kicked into 'Hickory Wind' from her Parsons period, and the five-man Nash Ramblers sauntered on piecemeal, like a casual bar band.

That made even Sam Bush, her hyperactive sidekick on mandolin, violin and amplified T-shirt, look quite cool.

The cleverness of Harris is that she has consistently picked subtle and challenging material without plumping straight for the big tunes. She played out with 'Save the Last Dance for Me' and Hank Williams' 'Jambalayo', but Nashville standards were as conspicuous by their scarcity as songs from her new album, Cowgirl's Prayer. There will only ever be one version of 'Sweet Dreams', but that didn't stop Harris from bashing it over the head with her own melodramatic dynamics.

If her version of 'Too Far Gone', last heard on Elvis Costello's Almost Blue album, plumbed the depths of plangency, she could also be uplifting too. When the band conferred and decided to shuck off the electric support and shuffle down-stage to sing 'The Other Side of Life', the effect was spellbinding. Harris's crystalline, gulping alto was supported all night by multiple male harmonies, but there aren't many singers this side of Covent Garden who'll take on a 2,000-strong audience without a microphone.

Of course, traditional bluegrass is all acoustic; but even if they were electrified, the presence of most of bluegrass's instruments was a heartening nod to country's roots. As well as violin and mandolin, there was throughout a double bass and a dobro (played by fellow Parsons vet Al Perkins), and a brief banjo cameo on 'One of These Days'. But however much the music threw itself around in songs like 'Wheels' and 'Born to Run' (no, not that one), the singer remained a focal point of dignified non- cavortion. Without moving, she managed to be moving.

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