It’s now known as “alt-country,” but when Emmylou Harris began her career, Gram Parsons, her mentor and singing partner, called it “cosmic American music.” It’s a phrase that still describes Harris’ work; the music heard at Royce Hall Tuesday night was gauzily otherworldly, as expansive and refracted as the light of a comet’s tail.
Drawing largely from her lovely and pensive new album, “Stumble Into Grace” (Nonesuch), Harris and backing trio Spyboy performed with gorgeous restraint. Drummer Brady Blade and bassist Tony Hall added muted rhythms; Blade’s judicious use of his ride cymbals meshed with Buddy Miller’s aerated electric guitar, giving songs such as Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl,” Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” and Harris’ own “I Will Dream” and “Lost in Babylon” their distinctive shimmering aura.
They also came back to earth for grittier country numbers such as “Two More Bottles of Wine” and added stunning gospel harmony to “Calling My Children Home.” (Miller, who plays like a southern Richard Thompson, opened the show with a short set, his guitar sound viscous as molasses and tart as vinegar, his songs as rugged and cleanly designed as a flatbed truck.) And Harris, looking stunning with her thick, ash-white hair, can convey more emotion by simply roughening her clear soprano than a passel of showier singers could with their trills, moans and melismas.
Harris is also graceful when stumbling. While changing guitars, she knocked over a glass, shorting out an effects box. While the problem was dealt with, she chatted with the crowd, telling jokes until her guitar once again could be heard. It was a lovely, unexpected moment in a performance both rarefied and sincere.