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Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’ ‘The Last Roundup’: Album Review

Of the many premature deaths from the wave of great ‘60s musicians, Gram Parsons is one of the most tragic. A deeply gifted singer and songwriter, he’s universally (if not entirely accurately) regarded as the patron saint of Americana music. His pioneering fusions of the then-polarized genres of rock and country survive in just a handful of studio albums with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and his final two sets with his own Fallen Angels, but he’s cast a long shadow over the half-century since his death.

He singlehandedly brought country into the Rolling Stones’ sound (a result of his unhealthy friendship with Keith Richards); Emmylou Harris, who sang harmony with him on those solo albums, has burned a candle for him for her entire subsequent career; and it’s safe to say that artists from the Eagles to Wilco, from Elvis Costello to Lucinda Williams, from Steve Earle to Dwight Yoakam and thousands of others would not sound the way they do without his influence.

As with most artists who have been gone for the past 50 years, Parsons’ catalog and archives have been extensively mined; highlights include “Live 1973,” recorded with the Fallen Angels in the studios of New York’s WLIR-FM six months before his death, and the Byrds outtakes that materialized in the 1990s. Yet recordings have continued to emerge, even decades later: In 2007, the first volume from “The Gram Parsons Archive” arrived, a fascinating soundboard recording of two Flying Burrito Brothers 1969 sets in San Francisco.

And now, some 16 years later, is volume 2: a concert with the Fallen Angels recorded in Philadelphia on March 16, 1973, just three days after the WLIR performance. Titled “The Last Roundup: Live from the Bijou Café,” it’s accurately, if confusingly, billed as “his first new solo material in four decades” (the archive’s vol. 1 was with the Burritos and thus not solo) and “the only live club show of Gram ever released” (the WLIR show was recorded in a studio, and a fascinating 23-minute video from a Houston concert on the same tour has never officially been released).  

Enough backstory: How is the album? Short answer: great. The setlist is very similar to the WLIR show but includes four extra songs, one an instrumental, but the other three are a cover of Hank Williams “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)” and the Burritos classics “Sin City” and “My Uncle”; the old-school rock covers in the set-closing “Rock Medley” are also slightly different.

That alone would be worth the price of admission, but even though the WLIR concert is excellent, this is a much more exciting show: The band was playing in a club, not a studio, and they’re blazing from the opening notes. Parsons and Harris are in fine voice, and if there’s ever been any question as to why a band would need a lead guitarist (Jock Barkley), a rhythm guitarist (Parsons) and a pedal steel guitarist (Neil Flanz), it should be answered by the fiery interplay here. Harris sings lead on “Country Baptizing,” drummer N.D. Smart joins in for beautiful harmonies here and there, a friend apparently named Peter Eckles guests on trumpet for a couple of songs, and even bassist Kyle Tullis takes a brief solo during the set. The version of “Love Hurts” is spine-tingling; according to the press release, Flanz felt it was the best show of the tour.

Parsons is talkative and makes some colorful comments along the way: He introduces “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” as “a Byrds trip — Byrd shit!,” he laughs. “This song actually made some money.”

And most interestingly, he prefaces their cover of Merle Haggard’s “California Cottonfields” thus: “We’re gonna do a Merle Haggard song. I call Merle a friend of mine because he is a friend of mine, and it’s not true, all those things that people think about him: He got made famous for a sort of throwaway line about ‘we don’t do this and that,’” referencing Haggard’s tongue-in-cheek, oft misunderstood late ‘60s redneck hit “Okie From Muskogee,” which includes anti-hippie lyrics like “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/ We don’t take our trips on LSD.”

However, Parsons concludes, “Let me tell you something about Merle: He does this and that!”

The sound quality is strong and clear, although a bit one-dimensional, like most soundboard recordings. It exists because Flanz was so impressed with the set that he requested a copy of the soundboard cassette, which he then saved for almost 40 years before it was acquired by Amoeba Music, and rediscovered when the famous store moved to its new location on Hollywood Boulevard in 2021 (a silver lining of the legendary store’s controversial relocation).

The album is a “Record Store Day Black Friday Exclusive” limited-edition special and copies are likely to vanish as soon as they hit the shelves — don’t worry, such releases usually land on streaming services after a few months of superfan bragging-rights delay. But after a half-century’s wait for a recording few people knew even existed, there’s no downside: Just when the book on Parsons’ career seemed closed, here again are he and his Fallen Angels, in full flight on a glorious night, 50-plus years ago.

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