Emmylou Harris has been a muse to many musicians during her 30-year career: alt-country prophet Gram Parsons; producer Daniel Lanois; fellow songbirds Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt; and now, with the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue, to a whole generation of younger singer-songwriters who grew up listening to her "Luxury Liner" album and dreamed of crafting a similar artistic arc.
It seemed fitting, then, that Harris played unofficial host of the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue, a country-folk concert featuring Harris, Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings Friday night at the FleetBoston Pavilion.
As the group strummed guitars and sang in perfect harmony on the opener, "Hello, Stranger," it was hard to shake comical thoughts of the parodic film "A Mighty Wind." Rawlings was nearly unrecognizable with long hair tamped down beneath a 10-gallon cowboy hat that did Ernest Tubb proud. Meanwhile, Welch was simple and understated, as usual, in a skirt and black tank top, and Griffin was spunky in springy curls and a hot-pink dress. And Miller? He was just a no-frills, country rocker, and it worked for him.
But Harris was absolutely luminous. In a long, sparkly skirt, her silver mane worthy of a hair-care product commercial, Harris was almost celestial as she drifted in and out of others' sets to sing harmony. Her own songs were rendered stark and haunting, with just Harris on guitar and Miller on backup guitar and vocals. "My Songbird" sounded as fresh and tender as it did when she recorded it in 1978. Welch and Rawlings joined her for "Orphan Girl," a song Welch had written and Harris later added to her repertoire.
Miller brought a rousing country-blues stomp to the night's performances, gussying up his songs with streaks of feverish rockabilly and a sweet duet with Griffin on "The Dark End of the Street."
They claimed they didn't know the song very well, but their seamless blend of voices suggested otherwise. Welch and Rawlings, whom Harris earlier in the night described as partners in music and life (a revelation to a few of us), best embodied the tour's motif. Their lived-in voices tangled around tight, sibling-like harmonies, and Rawlings's guitar work has gotten only more virtuosic over the past few years. They transformed "Revelator" from a dirge into a textured, engrossing epic and easily the evening's most riveting performance; the audience recognized it, too, with an immediate standing ovation.
Griffin, a former staple on the local folk boards but now an Austin, Texas, resident, opened her set with an announcement from Harris -- supposedly "the world's biggest baseball fan" -- that the Red Sox were winning 6 to 0. Griffin turned out to be the evening's dark horse. Earlier, she had seemed a lightweight on some of the duets, but on her own songs she packed a wallop. Her pristine vocals carried strongly across the pavilion as she sang the lonesome "Making Pies," about the Table Talk Pie Company in Worcester. For the first time, the night's stormy weather seemed appropriate.
All the musicians returned for the final few songs, including The Band's "The Weight" and a first-time performance of the Byrds' "Turn! Turn! Turn!" Harris urged everyone to vote, and it seemed a bipartisan call to arms until they reached the chorus and she lifted her arms to the crowd's swelling cheers: "A time for peace, I swear it's not too late."