3 Girls sing together beautifully at the Orpheum

A review of 3 Girls and their Buddy at the Orpheum Theatre on February 22, 2009

, Contributing Writer

If you’re into songs, one of the finest ways to spend an evening is with a few songwriters, passing a guitar (or two) and a bottle of wine (or two) around the room. Everyone sings a song or two, they might put in a harmony or maybe quietly tap out some percussion on a wine glass, or they just listen. You talk about the songs a little, maybe one reminds you of another, and maybe someone sings that one. Maybe you sing something you made, maybe you something you got from someone, it doesn’t matter. It’s about songs. The “Three Girls and Their Buddy” tour was as close as most of us will get to spending that sort of night hanging out with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Shawn Colvin, except there was no wine and they did all of the singing.

The “Buddy” of the tour’s title was to have been Buddy Miller, the great Nashville session player (Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Steve Earle, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, etc., etc.) who was unfortunately sidelined by a heart attack on Thursday. I’m happy to say he’s expected to recover in good order, but he’s going to be off the stage for a little while.& While his presence would have been welcome, his absence did no harm at all. The “three girls” managed quite nicely, which will surprise nobody who’s heard them. In fact, the change in lineup might have helped to shake things up, forcing some new thinking about setlists and song choices. As it came off, there were no set lists in evidence, and the choices were interesting ones. The three singers performed in what’s sometimes called an “in the round” format, each taking her turn singing a song, with the others either playing a bit of percussion or singing on the chorus.

These three women are all in the top ranks of American singers and song-makers, and the opportunity to hear them in such an open and interactive format was a rare treat. It’s worth spending a moment taking note of what they chose to sing. After a pleasantly sappy rendition of “To Know Him is to Love Him” (dedicated to Mr. Miller), each sang a fairly safe and commercially sensible song. Harris sang the title track of her 2000 album, Red Dirt Girl, Griffin sang a song from her forthcoming gospel album, and Colvin sang what is perhaps her best-known song, “Shotgun Down the Avalanche”. This was about the end of the obvious choices. Each sang, at some point in the night, a cover song, each played something new, and each spent a little time in her back catalog. Mostly they seemed to be following the inspiration of the moment, playing what came to mind. Some of the songs they had clearly played together before, and others were clearly out of the blue. Harris, known for most of her career as an interpreter of other peoples’ songs, stayed almost exclusively to her own compositions, aside from Merle Haggard’s “Kern River”. She came across with some wonderful lines – one in particular stuck with me: “silk was all I had between me and your skin/Like Waterloo, I lost that too”. The combination of sensuality and loss is ideally suited to Harris’s singing, at once exultant and wounded.

To follow this, a collaboration between Harris and Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Griffin came up with a song by the unknown great Tom T. Hall. “I Flew Over Our House Today” is a perfect too-tough-to-cry lost love ballad, and Griffin was able to pull it off, with a conversational tone that only occasionally let slip a crack of emotion. Griffin is a stellar singer, reminiscent of Harris in her tone but using more vocal elaboration than Harris ever does, which works for her in a way it wouldn’t work for Harris. Unfortunately, aside from the Hall cover, she never seemed to fit into the feel of the evening. An unreleased song she sang called “Little God” was really quite a good piece of writing, but it felt too brassy in a night of quiet songs which took their power from their gentle touch. She did very well singing “Love Throw a Line”, from her Impossible Dream album, and gave it a good and funky feel – assisted by Harris and Colvin on shaker and tambourine – but even then it felt a little like she’d turned up at the wrong party.

While Colvin has always struck me as a fairly safe songwriter, staying well within a comfortable zone of vague love wrapped in allusion and metaphor, she did mesh well with Harris. She sang a verse on Harris’ “Love and Happiness” and later sang Gram Parson’s “Hickory Wind”, which of course Harris has some claim on. On her own songs, which are admittedly well-crafted and effective, she sang with the most studied manner of the three, staying close to the song where Griffin ornamented every repeated phrase and Harris adjusted her phrasing to rework songs on the spot, bringing out new aspects of the lyric by subtle shifts of emphasis.

This difference in singing style ran parallel to differences in writing technique. Colvin tends to use metaphor to soft-focus a song, and she likes to cut away at the moment of impact. Griffin, on the other hand, tends to write big, and she’s not shy about letting her metaphor run: “Love Throw a Line” begins with a tidal wave, a breakdown in the middle of nowhere, and before you know it we’ve got lions in the coliseum, motherless children, and rivers of blood running into valleys. Colvin, on the other hand, buries love in “a mountain of new-fallen snow”. And Harris? Harris sings simply, without elaboration or ornament, but directly and without hiding her meaning. Her best lyrical moments are when she strips away the metaphor to a single concrete image or a straightforward story.

In the end, though, all three are in fact great singers and writers, and there’s no sense in dwelling on the differences between them. They certainly didn’t, they were just hanging out, singing songs together with no need for wine.

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