Patty Griffin’s vocals ring true at the House of Blues

A review of Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller at the House of Blues on June 6, 2010

, Contributing Writer

Patty Griffin came to Boston on Sunday to support her new record of gospel songs, Downtown Church. Backed by a tight crew of players, all of whom she’s worked with extensively, she let loose with a generous set of material drawn from the whole gamut of American gospel styles, reworking songs from blues singers like Gary Davis and Blind Willie Johnson, from the bluegrass and country material, as well as the hard-core church music and some of her own compositions.

Griffin led off with an affecting rendition of her song, “Standing”, in a stately, inevitable groove and almost no accompaniment beyond a stripped-down 6/8 drum part and vocal accompaniment from her band. From the start, it was clear that this would be a good set – a group that can move this deeply and this smoothly can do anything you need done. The song is one of Griffin’s, from her Impossible Dream album, but it suits the gospel theme nicely, and the spare arrangement showed off Griffin’s excellent vocal talents. On other material, her phrasing can be spiky, almost jagged, but here it was liquid, running downhill, obeying the unseen contours of the song. The audience certainly caught it – they were hooked from the start, and from that point Griffin could do no wrong.

This is a good place to be, when you’re a songwriter with devoted fans who know and love all of your material, and you’re about to play a show with almost none of your own songs. For the rest of the night, almost every song was old, many dating back to the early days of the last century. Most were fairly obscure, although traces of better-known songs showed through. Almost all of them touched on some themes of spirituality, although Griffin’s version has less of fire and brimstone and more of faith and hope. But thanks to producer Buddy Miller and bandleader/guitarist Doug Lancio, all of the songs felt like they belonged together, and that they were all made for Patty Griffin to sing, and that was what they needed.

The show covered a lot of ground, from the Blind Willie Johnson classic “If I Had My Way”, also known as “Samson and Delilah”, through the bubbly “Move On Up In Glory” (think 1960s Farfisa pop) to a positive rave-up version of Griffin’s “Love Throws a Line”, with lots of old-school Baptist church-style gospel classics. Making this all fit together was a trick in itself, and with less-capable arranging it would have been a variety show, a melange of different styles. This show was not that, it was a coherent whole with an internal logic to the movement of the songs. The key to this, at the center of it all, was a voice, and a commitment to keeping that voice at the heart of the show.

And what a voice. Patty Griffin’s is not the ordinary singer-songwriter’s voice. She doesn’t find a nice little melody and set nice little chords to it – she tends to go bigger than that. Her phrasing finds the long lines, moving across bar lines and landing in surprising places, like a good horn player. She takes odd leaps and turns melodies in unexpected directions. She’s always doing what you didn’t realize you expected her to do. In all of this, she’s a woman in her element, singing exactly what she means to sing, but when she needs it, her voice has a child-like loneliness, a break or a hitch that comes across like a sob. She used this quality to tremendous effect singing Waylon Jennings’ “I Do Believe”. Where Jennings sings it as a profession of a simple faith in the face of doubt, Griffin made it more a confession of a nagging doubt undermining a fundamental faith.

While every member of the band clearly had the chops to stand out as an instrumental stylist, there was an admirable restraint in their playing. Both guitarists played impressive solos when it came to them to do so, but they kept them within the bounds of the song. When Miller joined Griffin for a duo take on Alfred G. Kerns’ “Never Grow Old”, his quiet and deliberate demolition and reconstruction of the rhythm and the harmonies showed how much one music one man can play in eight bars of waltz time. In those eight bars, he turned the beat inside out and upside down, inverted the harmonies until they had no idea which way was up, and then dusted it off and set the whole thing gently on its feet, just in time for the last verse. It was a truly masterful performance, made that much more impressive by Miller’s casual, “what, me worry?” approach. And later, when Mancio blew the doors off of the room in the outro to “Love Throws a Line”, it was a moment of long-delayed release, and all the more impressive for being the one moment of really excessive instrumentalism of the night. Outside of these two moments, Griffin’s set was continually focused on that voice and those songs, and both were worth the attention.
By contrast, Miller’s opening set was a delightfully unabashed exercise in because-I-can show-offery, and it was its own sort of beautiful. Miller, in addition to being one of Nashville’s best producers and songwriters, is also an excellent performer, and he made good use of the trio format to crank out 45 minutes of good bar-room rock and roll, salted with enough guitar tricks to keep the people happy, without turning the set into a clinic. Miller was accompanied for most of it by Griffin’s drummer and bassist, with Ms. Griffin on vocals, and he made good use of the open space this left him to travel in all sorts of directions. I was particularly taken by his cover of a Lefty Frisell song, in which he showed that jazz did indeed come out of Saint Louis, and that its roots are as tangled up in real country music as they are in anything else, but the whole set was full of inventive and fun guitar work.

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