TVD Live: Margo Price at The Kennedy Center, 8/11

Somebody has been stepping it up at The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage this summer. The free daily showcase that once reliably booked out-of-town college and high school ensembles has suddenly seen performers that include Alejandro Escovado, Chris Smither, Hurray for the Riff Raff on its stages.

Later, it had Margo Price, in a show that was for some reason elevated from the usual lobby stage to its third floor Terrace Theatre, which still fit the crowd. For the occasion, the ace country singer and songwriter was joined by her husband Jeremy Ivey for a strong 12-song acoustic set that was quite a departure from her usual band tour—and further still from the expansive cosmo rock explosion of her latest album Strays.

But the sparse presentation brought extra focus to the breathtaking (and true) autobiographical song from her Midwest Farmer’s Daughter that started the show, “Hands of Time.” It’s a country song that has everything—daddy losing the farm, her losing a baby, left turns with men and drink, a bit of hope at the end—and largely introduced the world to Price’s considerable talents.

Chagrined at first by the setting and the hushed audience, she joked “I’m shocked they let us into such a nice establishment. I had to dig through the suitcase for proper clothes.” With the freedom to play a lot of songs they usually don’t, it was a surprising set that included one of the songs she wrote with Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers while dodging wildfires in Topanga Canyon, “Malibu.”

Others were songs they’ve been performing but never quite recorded, including a couple from an abandoned religious-based concept album, “1-800-JESUS” and “Revelations.” Ivey got a showcase with his song “The Dream and the Dreamer” and he got a workout on his 12-string doing the traditional “Silver Dagger,” known from Joan Baez’s 1960 debut album, but recorded by scores of others.

They had a shoutout to their friend Steven Knudson by doing his wry “It Ain’t Drunk Driving If You’re Riding a Horse” that she’d been doing live off and on for a few years. The acoustic format gave them a chance for flashes of new songs here and there, one about a “Metal Bird,” on which she accompanied herself with a newly acquired dulcimer near the end of the set. The only inclusion from Strays was her driving “Been to the Mountain,” which retained its power minus the snarl of a band behind her.

The highlight might have been her initial choice for a benefit following the Nashville school shooting last March that Emmylou Harris told her would be too dark for the occasion. She was right. The stark ballad “The Crow on the Cradle” with its references to infant caskets, guns, and foreboding death would have been too much and as it was, months later, Price said she was surprised she got through it at The Kennedy Center without crying.

The song has an odd provenance: Price said it was a Joni Mitchell song; but on an archival release of a 1964 coffeehouse gig in Toronto, Mitchell introduced it as something by Ewan McColl, the songwriter behind “Dirty Old Town” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Most others connect it with Sydney Carter, an Englishman known to cobble together songs from poems and old haunting melodies—he made the Shaker hymn “Simple Things” into “Lord of the Dance.”

Whatever the origin, the Cold War-era “The Crow on the Cradle” certainly retains its chilling power with lines like “now is the time for a child to be born … and if he’s a boy he will carry a gun.” Later: “Somebody’s baby is not coming back.” And darker: “hushabye little one, never you weep / for we’ve got a new toy that will put you to sleep.”

It wasn’t the only time Emmylou Harris came up during the set; Price closed by honoring Robbie Robertson, who had died days earlier at 80, playing “Evangeline,” the song that The Band worked up with Harris for The Last Waltz set. Topical, timely and of the moment, the show demonstrated how Price is one of the strongest voices in Nashville today. And, lucky for you, the whole concert has been preserved on video, above.

Hands of Time
The Dream and the Dreamer
It Ain’t Drunk Driving If You’re riding a Horse
Been to the Mountain
The Crow on the Cradle
Silver Dagger
Your Memory is Out Tonight
Metal Bird

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