Sharing time-tested tunes, well-crafted newer material, personal stories and good vibes, the artists of The Lantern Tour—Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Thao Nguyen, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Gaby Moreno and Amy Helm—wrapped up this year’s pandemic-shortened, three-city run at Collingswood, N.J.’s Scottish Rite Auditorium.
The tour raised money for the Women’s Refugee Commission, which fights for the rights, inclusion and empowerment of women and youth in conflict zones around the world, including reuniting families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. It was only right, then, that some of the most powerful songs of the night were informed by the songwriters’ own journeys, whether literal or metaphorical.
Introducing “Temple” (one of the best singles of 2020 or any year), Thao Nguyen talked about her parents’ escape from Vietnam and revisiting the country of their birth with her mother decades later. Her mom’s words about learning what it means to be free and why millions of people would risk everything to pursue a better life for their families came through loud and clear in the song, which lost none of its muscle or danceability for being performed in a stripped-down, seated arrangement. Nguyen contributed two other originals to the night—a spiky solo take on “Holy Roller” and an ensemble version of “We The Common (For Valerie Bolden)” that served as a reminder of the positive force of music and collective energy, with both songs anchored by her mighty banjo—and added electric guitar to others’ songs.
Gaby Moreno also made a big impression, with a cover of “At The Borderline” by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim Dickinson that showcased her lovely Spanish-guitar flourishes and two of her own songs, “Fronteras” (from her Grammy-nominated 2016 album Ilusión) and “Till Waking Light” (a recorded but as-yet-unreleased bilingual plea for treating people with respect and dignity that centers the migrant experience). It was the last of these that provided the most transcendent moment of the concert, with the beauty, clarity and strength of Moreno’s voice all the more remarkable because she brought it while sharing a stage with the incomparable Emmylou Harris.
As one of the main forces behind The Lantern Tour, Harris was a major presence who elevated every number she graced with her harmonies and captivated when singing lead. She set the pace for the show with the first song, a cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” made plain the link between the past and the present with the traditional “Green Pastures” (via the Stanley Brothers, by way of Ricky Skaggs) and paid loving tribute to Nanci Griffith with “Gulf Coast Highway,” recalling all the times Griffith joined Harris and Earle to advocate for a better world and noting that only her death earlier in 2021 would keep her out of this lineup.
But Harris’ highlight and one of the most solid links binding the artists together was “Goodbye.” Steve Earle released his song first, on 1995’s Train A-Comin’, and Harris soon followed, releasing her version (with Earle backing her) later in the year on Wrecking Ball. Onstage Saturday, Earle noted that whenever they perform it together, they play it in a different key, depending on whose show it is; he took the lead on the first verse and she took the second, but it really belonged to all of us lucky enough to share the space with them.
Earle contributed guitar, harmonica and bouzouki intermittently, but his spotlight songs, “Copperhead Road” and the show-closing “Pilgrim,” were memorable in uniting the entire ensemble in their individual strengths and as a collective voice. (He also rambled a bit on the history of delis in his adopted hometown of New York, which was charming if a bit dubious.)
Amy Helm played a couple of solid tunes from the recent What The Flood Leaves Behind, “Cotton And The Cane” (about all the people she saw struggle with addiction as a kid growing up surrounded by musicians) and “Sweet Mama,” but her most indelible contribution was leading the group in a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” that’s still lodged in my head days later.
“Well, now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact,” the chorus of “Atlantic City” goes, “But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” In a way, it echoed the chorus of Nguyen’s “Temple”: “Why would I bother to remember when/Our people, baby, die and live again.” Or maybe “Temple” echoed “Atlantic City,” which came two songs later in the set and 38 years earlier in the world. The link between the two may be more of a dotted line than the unbroken chain that connects Harris’ and Earle’s versions of “Goodbye” or the traditional tunes passed down from performer to performer over decades of song swaps and in-the-round shows, but that ambiguity only underscored the unspoken commonalities that unite humanity across generations, genders, geographic borders, cultures, life experiences and any other category you can construct—intentional or not.
Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams were utility players throughout—he on guitar, mandolin and fiddle; she on occasional guitar; both on harmonies—but they nearly stole the show with a cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Running Wild” and graciously invited the audience into their own world with original “Did You Ever Love Me at All” and stories of their courtship decades ago. But it was Williams’ lead vocals on “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning” (traditional by way of the Rev. Gary Davis), backed by the ensemble and featuring a blazing guitar solo from Nguyen, that provided the fiercest moment of the concert, and it was one of the many musical and personal connections that made the night so special.
—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich