Listening to Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer perform together now, as they did in a two-night stand this week at Largo in Los Angeles, it’s hard to believe that the sisters weren’t always singing or living in complete harmony. But Lynne referred back to a time when the two were estranged as she introduced “Miss You Sissy,” a bittersweet lament she released nearly 20 years ago in the thick of their schism.
“She was in a shitty relationship, and I was in a shitty relationship,” Lynne explained. “And sometimes that shit gets in the way, you know?”
Blood turned out to be thicker than wastrels, of course, and the blood harmony that filled Largo in the first of their L.A. shows Monday (Oct. 2) was a case of sublimity deferred and divine. The Andrewses, Pointers, Wilsons, Sledges, Roches, Haims, and Knowleses all have nothing on Lynne and Moorer, who’ve picked up as 40-something adults where they apparently left off as children, reconvening at the intersection of country and soul.
They were backed live by a sparsely electric three-piece band, echoing the low-key accompaniment on their first record together, the new “Not Dark Yet.” It’s a covers album (save for one new composition by Lynne), encompassing choices from Merle Haggard, Nick Cave, Jason Isbell, and the Killers. A fan might have hoped there were some interpretations left on the cutting room floor that would be added live, but Lynne and Moorer didn’t include any more outside choices as they ran through the record’s 10 selections in the bulk of the show. It felt sufficient; once you’ve been sweet on the Louvin Brothers’ “Every Time You Leave” and gone snotty with Nirvana’s “Lithium,” there’s not much stylistic gamut left to cover.
As good as that album recreation was, the six bonus tracks were even more piquant. Just as they’d traded lead vocals throughout the covers, they now traded original material from their respective catalogs, focusing on songs that were either about their home state of Alabama, each other, or both. Alabama may not necessarily be the favorite state lately in the land of progressive Angelinos, owing to recent political developments, but Moorer and Lynne made it sound like the most idyllic place on earth, playing the former’s “Alabama Song” and the latter’s “Where I’m From” back to back.
Anyone who knows the story of their youth knows it hardly turned out to be so bucolic, with the phrase “not dark yet” being a bit of a misnomer. But the between-song commentary, dominated by Lynne, established that sweeter memories may yet predominate. She talked of growing up at Box 3 on Route 1, in a place so simple the streets truly have no name, and of hearing her baby sister’s voice suddenly chiming in to create three-part harmonies alongside their mother, and of a daddy who taught toddler Allison to immediately recognize and call out Merle Haggard’s voice. It may not quite be Loretta Lynn’s holler that they grew up in, but it is striking and sobering to think that Moorer and Lynne might have represented the last generation with a shot at growing up in such an environment of such unalloyed country, musically and otherwise. That rootedness has served them well, even as they’ve found their niche playing Americana for rock audiences who may not be sure the Tombigbee River isn’t a lyrical reference Lynne just made up.
Watching them closely at Largo provided an opportunity to ruminate on the magic of family harmony, and related topics, like whether birth order affects vocal destiny. At times their voices could sound identical, and at others, as different as night and day, or at least dusk and dawn. Moorer has the smoother and maybe more comforting voice — it is, to borrow one of her old song titles, a soft place to land — and Lynne’s just as lovely but a bit wilder. Moorer could be coaxed to join Lynne in equal levels of recklessness on the raucous “Lithium,” the one time the set devolved from its pine-tall vocal heights for some delightfully bashy, screechy rock and roll.
If you get the sense that Lynne might have been the wilder child, you also got a firm sense of her as the nurturing and protective older sibling. That was especially true in the deeply autobiographical details of the closer, “I’ll Hold Your Head,” as moving a song as has ever been written about a sibling bond — which, for a coda, had a minor-key interpolation of the 1920s standard “Side by Side,” a mashup that definitely should not have worked, but did. Another consolatory standout was the new album’s one original, “Is It Too Much,” one of the best numbers Lynne has ever written, in which the family connection is only implicit, with offer of solace and support that could be any friend consoling a depressed companion.
The fresh tragedies of the Las Vegas massacre and Tom Petty’s death went unmentioned during the show, but “Is It Too Much” couldn’t have been any better timed as a balm for an audience that presumably came in with a lot of collective anxiety to go around. For a nerve-soothing hour and a half, the Largo crowd got to avail themselves of those sisterly shoulders, too.