Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Patty Griffin, with Scott Miller, at the Byham

Admit it – you have music running through your head, too. And half the time, you can’t even say what it is, or where it came from, while it is happening. Later, however, there are times when an old piece of music comes along that brings back a flood of familiar emotions – not just a memory, but a chance to re-experience some significant series of events. This happens to me a lot when I’m listening to Patty Griffin. Her songs -- with their splendid character studies, still lives and tableaux -- figure prominently in my re-experience of the time around which my wife and I started to date. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that, on a week when my wife is out of town, I decided to take myself to the Byham Theater to see Patty Griffin in concert.

Before I get into that, however … it was my pleasure last night to “discover” Scott Miller, who opened for Patty Griffin. With a voice like a street-smart choir tenor, Miller plies an effervescent variety of country-blues Americana -- layering in bittersweetness and laugh-out-loud humor, with a penchant for sardonic confessions and self-deprecation that calls his Sugar Hill label-mate Rodney Crowell to mind. His heart-on-yer-sleeve guitar work is rockin’ nimble, too. There are times when it appears that he’s just playing music to break up his monologue, which is surely part of the charm of his act. After saluting Western Pennsylvania with a brief, grinning discourse on the Whiskey Rebellion (a subject near and dear to my heart, as I am finishing a first draft of a documentary script on it for Inecom Productions), he breaks out into a ditty entitled “Drunk All Around This Town,” which bears quoting:

Well I been drunk all around this town
The downside-up to the upside-down
Y’set ‘em up, boys, I’ll knock ‘em down
Well I been drunk all around this town

I drank shooters with the college boys
The girls are cuter where they card the door
Daddy’s money makes a lot of noise
Well, I drank shooters with the college boys

I drank bourbon with the lawyers, too
Their power ties and their wing-tip shoes
‘Cause even Republicans get the blues
So I drank bourbon with the lawyers, too …

… and there Miller’s humor and his skills as a writer and performer all seem to converge. It’s always a great thrill to encounter a doggone real live human being in the opening act of a concert.

Of course, it was Patty Griffin’s night. Every time I see her in concert, I am always struck at how such a tiny, delicately beautiful woman can emit such a big voice. True, the timbre of her voice is pint-sized, deceptively so – and she uses this pint-sizedness to great nostalgic, atmospheric effect on an old French hymn she sings at the beginning of the concert, as a tribute to her late grandmother who passed away last fall at age 99, sounding like a Northern Appalachian version of Edith Piaf. It is a voice of great capacity, though, and at times it fills the nooks of this old vaudeville palace, and all of the crannies, too.

At the same time, Griffin’s voice always has a fine point on it, and one revels in its searching detail. Like the experience of watching blue jays dart around among the trees outside my home, I marvel at the way she gracefully swoops and soars and glides her way through the last incantations of a tune like “No Bad News” from her most recent album Children Running Through, never smacking face-first into a tree trunk, always finding a perch. And, the exquisite intensity of it, as she reaches an emotional crescendo – that patented Patty Griffin moment in numbers like “Crying Over” or “Trapeze” -- can absolutely scalp you.

Griffin’s great gift as a live performer emerges directly from her love of what she does. She giggles, confessing “I love my job,” while the Pittsburgh crowd roars its approval. On a rockin’ number, “Getting Ready,” she forms a jamming circle with her superb band, led by guitarist Daniel Lancio, her pony tail bouncing as she stomps her feet and thrashes away at her acoustic guitar, doing her business with infectious glee. The theme carries through to her quieter live moments as well; while “Up on the Mountain,” a gospel-infused song inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final sermon, is a fine song on Children Running Through, Griffin’s live performance of the song outshines the recorded version, and you can just see it in her flushed face that, in part, it’s her gratitude to a warmly appreciative audience that inspires her to such heights.

You may like what you’ve heard of Patty Griffin’s work, if you’ve been paying attention the last several years, but like me, you haven’t heard her properly until you’ve heard her live.

[Even so, you might want to try her album, Children Running Through, at your earliest convenience.]



Anonymous br54knight said...

Great review Ron. I wish my reviews were that thoughtful & reflective. Mine usually read like a 7 year old's book report.

"It was cold outside. The room was packed. The beer was cold too. Opener Scott Miller was great! He's funny & had a hole in his jeans. Patty Griffin was amazing too! Her voice soars & she plays piano & guitar. She has another pretty girl in her band."

Okay, my reviews aren't always that bad but maybe I should sober up before writing them.

Anyway, I saw the Miller/Griffin show in Asheville, NC last week & was really impressed by both acts. I was looking for more reviews of their shows & found yours. Thanks for sharing!

8:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your Patty Griffin review too. I was actually searching around for an mp3 of "Drunk All Around This Town" which I just heard on WYEP, but I was glad to read your review instead! It reminded me why she is one of my favorite singer/songwriters (and I wish I hadn't missed her when she was at the Byham!)

12:58 PM  

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