A crack backup band and a well-selected repertoire elevate the impact of this eventful pairing of two of the defining voices of country rock. The care with which they have made their first duo album, following a pair of trio discs with Dolly Parton, and with which they present themselves onstage shows an act clicking on all cylinders. The preponderance of midtempo material did start to wear in their two-hour showcase, and there is some concern that they place too much faith and not enough of themselves into recorded versions of others’ songs; otherwise, this is an absolute treasure.
Ronstadt and Harris, appearing amiable and full of nostalgic anecdotes, have dug into a familiar well for material on their Elektra/Asylum disc, “Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions,” released Tuesday. The songwriters are mostly familiar — Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Sinead O’Connor, John Hiatt — though they do add works by David Olney, Patti Scialfa and Andy Preiboy to the mix. The duo will embark on a 10-city tour to support “Western Wall” that, as yet, does not have a proper L.A. date. The two will perform in San Diego Sept. 13 and Las Vegas on Sept. 15.
Album’s first track, Preiboy’s “Loving the Highway Man,” kicked off the 21-song show, and the material found both displaying well-honed harmony skills as well as their ability to lead. Ronstadt, who has favored a delivery style over the last two decades that’s far more subdued than her 1970s heyday when she was cranking out a stream of hit singles, really let loose on Linda Thompson’s “Telling Me Lies,” generating the evening’s most sustained ovation.
Harris, lauded for thinking outside the country-rock box since the release of “Wrecking Ball” in 1995, exhibited some gritty chops in the grungy funk ditty “Sweet Spot,” which she composed with Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff. Presentation of the song — it’s the new album’s first single — was abetted by a lineup of three guitars, bass and organ. Band members performed at least three instruments each, with Greg Leisz supplying effective and touching solos on pedal steel, lap steel, slide guitar, mandolin and guitar.
As much as the musicians set each piece with taste, several numbers are seemingly hemmed in by the original renditions. Browne’s “For a Dancer” came off as an exact replica of the version that appeared on his “Late for the Sky” album, and not only did Hiatt’s “Icy Blue Heart” begin with Hiatt’s style of articulation on the acoustic guitar, the singers phrased each line as if they were singing unalterable, sacred text. Then again, Poco’s “Rose of Cimarron,” which they slowed from the original to fit into the mid-tempo groove, felt sluggish. Springsteen’s “Across the Border” and Leonard Cohen’s delicate “Sisters of Mercy” were given marvelous renditions.