LOS ANGELES -- The restored neon lights of the art deco El Rey Theatre flickered on as the sun set in a golden, smoggy haze. Inside, country-folk singer Emmylou Harris took the stage for a sobering reason: little children getting their arms and legs blown off by live mines.
The benefit concert by Harris on Thursday night raised about $30,000 for various organizations that work to defuse land mines throughout the world. But that didn't diminish the happiness that she and her band, Spyboy, brought to the fans who filled the El Rey alongside supporters of the anti-land-mine movement.
Noting that the ticket price ($55 general or $250 VIP) was more than anyone
had ever paid to see her play, Harris, who began her career as a backup singer for country-rocker Gram Parsons, promised a long set and delivered. But fans said it was well worth the cost.
"I'm old enough to have lost friends in the Vietnam War," said Lynn Litaker, a Harris fan in the audience. "I've been to Cambodia, seen kids with their limbs blown off."
"There couldn't be a better place to be right now," Litaker added as she looked over the crowd, which was gathered in the front of the room and sitting on the floor, spellbound, like schoolchildren in an auditorium.
Though she commanded the audience through her set, Harris' bulky Gibson guitar made her look small. Still, her white-gray hair gleamed under the lights and her voice ranged from fragile to thunderous as she performed 27 songs, including "Orphan Girl", "Wrecking Ball," "All My Tears" and "Blackhawk." The show also included two new covers, Bob Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" and a version of "Love Hurts" (RealAudio excerpt).
Harris, whose latest album is entitled Spyboy, came off as humble, but glamorous. She even changed clothes during an intermission, going from a long, sleeveless dress to bright-red pedal-pushers with a svelte, black tank-top.
As Harris explained at one point in the concert, her involvement in the cause to defuse land mines was inspired by Bobby Muller, the president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which is affiliated with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines -- one of the organizations benefiting from the concert. Muller, a Vietnam veteran, sat in the VIP balcony.
Muller's organization had brochures in the lobby. A photo of members of Peace Trees Vietnam (also receiving proceeds from the show) was propped up on a nearby easel, with a description of a land-mines information center to be built in
Vietnam, beginning in September.
Three elaborate crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling of the El Rey dwarfed two mirrored disco-balls that hung nearby. Fans sat on the carpet near a sunken dance floor that was rimmed by red floorlights. On one side, diners sat at tables, watching the show; opposite, the loot for a silent benefit auction was on display for bids.
Before Harris even began to perform, announcer Dave Richards urged those in attendance to participate in the auction. "It's hard to appreciate how it can affect a family in a developing country if a mother or father is maimed or killed," Richards told SonicNet Music News. "It would be easier if it were on our doorstep, if your baby sister stepped on a land mine."
"Emmylou Harris is a busy person," Richards added after a pause. "She gets nothing from this. She's very wonderful."
Robert Porte, 38, of Los Angeles agreed with Richards' appraisal of Harris. "I've waited 14 years to see this woman. She's an angel," Porte said breathlessly. "I saw her open for Jethro Tull when no one knew who she was. She's amazing."
Harris is one of the high-profile figures to take up the anti-land-mine cause that the late Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, embraced.
The VVAF's literature explains that while it costs $3 to create a land mine, it takes $1,000 to safely remove one from the ground. During the Vietnam War, American planes dropped thousands of mines on Vietnam and Cambodia,
and both sides mined the forests. After the war, the mines were never removed, and now children pick them up, thinking they're toys, with devastating consequences.
During "Every Grain of Sand," Harris fell strangely silent for a verse. She joked afterward that she'd suffer some divine punishment for forgetting the words to a Dylan song.
But it's clear that those in attendance were forgiving.