At some point, every dedicated fan should have the opportunity to watch their favorite artist(s)—no matter how big or famous—perform from five feet away. Particularly in a small, intimate venue that captures every stray guitar lick and nuance in the voice. There’s nothing quite like it. I had that opportunity Thursday night as I dragged an unsuspecting friend (and new fan) to see the luminous and beautiful Patty Griffin perform at a sold-out Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, California. Before a couple hundred adoring fans, she put on a show I will not soon forget.
On the way to the show my friend asked me “What kind of music does Patty sing?” My first response was “Well, she’s labeled Americana.” Blank stare. But really, how does one define Patty’s style? I read this definition of Americana or roots music online the other day. It applies perfectly to Patty and I couldn’t have summed it up better: “American Roots music isn’t country, pop or rock, though it’s not ashamed to borrow from those styles. It’s not bluegrass, gospel, folk or Cajun, though there are elements. To its practitioners, it’s the authentic heart of the heartland, songs that could only come from here, sounds that remind us who we are. Soul music, if you will.”
Like many others, I was introduced to Patty the songwriter before I was introduced to Patty the singer and performer. Patty has had the blessing or curse (depending on how you view it) of having been famously covered by a number of big names—Dixie Chicks (“Top of the World”, “Truth No. 2″, “Let Him Fly”, “Mary”), Miranda Lambert (“Getting Ready”), Martina McBride (“Goodbye”), The Wreckers (“One More Girl”) and Emmylou Harris (“One Big Love”, “Moon Song”), among others.
In recent years, however, Patty has emerged from the shadows, so to speak, to stand on her own as a vibrant singer and performer, and one of the most respected songwriters in modern music. In 2007, Patty was the Americana Music Association’s Artist of the Year and her latest gem, Children Running Through, captured Album of the Year. Everyone’s favorite collaborator, she frequently performs with Willie Nelson, and she went on tour earlier this year with Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller.
On this particular night, however, she stood alone; and really, despite her excellent 3-piece backing band, Patty was all we needed.
When Patty walks on stage, she appears so ethereal and delicate you almost hold your breath until the first lyric falls from her mouth. Can she really belt out a tune with the same soulful passion as she does on her albums? Oh yes, she can. Her first note was like a punch in the gut. And from there on, Patty held the audience in the palm of her hand, performing a wide range of songs that could be defined as nothing other than “soul music.”
In addition to some of her own classic tunes, including “Truth No. 2”, “Be Careful” (a new favorite), “Chief”, “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” and “No Bad News”, Patty performed a couple of newly-penned songs, a song on off her never-released album “Silver Bell” (“Little God”) and a few gorgeous covers. Among her covers was a groovin’ take on Tom Waits’ “Hang on St. Christopher,” a soulful take on Ray Charles’ “Lonely Avenue” and for old country fans, a Lefty Frizzell song.
Halfway through the evening, Patty’s band went backstage and she stayed out alone. Patty has said that she needs this time alone on stage each night, as it’s how she started, and it gives her the absolute freedom to do whatever she wants. Among the songs she sang was the gorgeous “Waiting for My Child,” a song that Patty recently recorded with Mavis Staples and will be released on an upcoming album. Patty compared meeting Mavis Staples, a soul and gospel legend and civil rights activist, to meeting the Dalai Lama. Her rendition undoubtedly would have made her idol proud.
One of the highlights of the evening—and part of the magic of Patty Griffin—was hearing Patty describe the inspiration for some of her songs and then listening to her perform the songs themselves. With most artists, there is a literal connection. With Patty, there is a spiritual one. There is no other way to explain how she can take a song she described as being about a creepy and nasty little man she used to work with and turn it into an utterly haunting song like “Little God.”
Another highlight was watching Patty seamlessly move from rock, blues, folk and soul into “Mil Besos”, an old Latin standard she recorded on her 1000 Kisses album. I don’t know how well this plays in the American heartland, but in Southern California it was utterly perfect, and just proved my theory that great music transcends language, gender, race and genre.
Patty capped the evening with “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song).” This is how she has been ending all of her recent concerts, but somehow, on this night, it was all the more poignant. For just prior to the concert I had sat in my living room and watched the first African American accept his party’s nomination for President of the United States while invoking the hopeful words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Few artists know how to capture as much emotion with a simple lyric as Patty, and this song is a loving tribute to Dr. King and all those who came before. More than one person had tears in their eyes before it was over. Truly, just more of the magic of Patty Griffin.
Patty is coming out with a CD version of her “Live from the Artists Den DVD” digitally on September 9, 2008.
“Be Careful” ~ 1000 Kisses