Patty Griffin is an American treasure. I’ve written this so many times that I’m starting to sound like a broken record. But once you listen to her voice and her songwriting, you must agree that she embodies music at its best. In her career, Griffin has been categorized as a folk artist, Americana, and whatever label they place on artists that fall into the broad format of AAA. Whatever the label, Griffin’s music is timeless.
Griffin’s songs share most of the themes you’ll find in contemporary country music: community, rebellion, compassion and spirituality. When Patty Griffin sings there is soulfulness in her voice that can only come from a connection to her God and a firm standing in her beliefs. Don’t believe me? Check out her 2010 gospel album, Downtown Church; it’s as country an album you’ll hear in the past five years. She deserves a place alongside the pop driven music Nashville churns out. That she doesn’t receive airplay on mainstream country radio (unless some other artist is covering one of her songs) is ridiculous.
Griffin has released seven studio albums. Her stunning debut, Living with Ghosts came out in 1995; her latest is American Kid, which reached record shelves and digital downloads this past May. American Kid was written during a period when Griffin’s father was nearing death. As an outlet for dealing with his passing, Griffin began writing songs. Mr. Griffin had an intriguing life, having stormed the beaches of Normandy, getting a college degree, trying his hand at being a monk, and eventually becoming a science teacher, husband and father to seven children, of which Patty is the youngest. His life story influenced the material Griffin wrote, some of which is directly about him.
American Kid is Griffin’s first full-length record of original material since 2007’s Children Passing Through (which gave us her lovely song, “Heavenly Day”). Besides her gospel record in 2010, Griffin toured with her good friends, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller. Through her friendship with Miller, she became involved with Robert Plant’s Band of Joy project. Griffin recorded and toured with Plant and proved to be the perfect match to the Golden God of classic rock. Their voices blend nicely together, and on stage they both exude sexiness and cool. Plant appears on three of American Kid’s tracks, including “Highway Song,” which he co-wrote with Griffin.
On Tuesday night, Griffin headlined an intimate show at the Wiltern Theater in downtown Los Angeles. After opening act, Max Gomez, delivered a fine set of folk/country songs, Griffin’s fans crowded the front of the stage, giving the classic L.A. theater the atmosphere of a club show. Indeed, throughout the night, Griffin’s passionate followers shouted out their love for her. The singer humbly smiled at the adoration and stuck to her storytelling, both in dialogue and music.
The show began with a reinvented, mesmerizing version “Carry Me,” from her sophomore album, Flaming Red. Griffin and her stellar band then segued into American Kid’s first single, “Ohio.” The power of the three men backing up Griffin was immediately displayed, as the performance of this song matched the intensity of the recorded version. David Pulkingham shined on lead guitar, as he did throughout the night. On accordion and piano, John Dedrick provided lovely flourishes and solos. Playing baritone guitar was Craig Ross, who co-produced American Kid. All three guys also took turns behind a small drum kit at some point during the concert.
While the focus of the night was justifiably American Kid, with 9 of the album’s 12 songs being played, Griffin dipped into her catalog of songs, including performances of material from 1000 Kisses (2002), Children Running Through (2007) and Downtown Church. In between songs she would explain the origin of her material, whether it was talking lovingly about her father before “Faithful Son,” describing the sight of an abandoned pit bull on the side of the road before the heartbreaking “Wild Old Dog,” or talking about how she mashed up her distaste for her ex-boyfriend and ex-president to write the song “No Bad News.”
The story behind the raucous “Get Ready Marie” is a hoot. This sing-along waltz was inspired by a photograph of Griffin’s grandparents taken on their wedding day, back in the 1920s. In the photo, Griffin’s grandmother wears an expression of “what have I done?” In contrast, her grandfather has the look of a man who can’t wait to get his new bride into bed.
Midway through the concert, the band left the stage allowing Griffin to perform several solo acoustic numbers. The highlight for me was an exquisite version of “Be Careful,” from 1000 Kisses. This song has a connection to my daughter, and on Tuesday night, hearing it brought me to tears. Then again, Griffin’s voice is so rich with emotion; most of her songs make me a blubbering idiot.
After closing the opening portion of her show, the stage lights dimmed and the crowd stood applauding for a good ten minutes. Griffin returned by herself and grabbed a guitar. Then she introduced a “dear friend” she found roaming around backstage. Out walked Robert Plant. The legendary singer graciously acknowledged the screaming fans before taking a stool next to Griffin. The two sang a duet of “Highway Song” that was… Hell, I can’t even describe it. Better that you hear it for yourself.
Plant exited after that song and Dedrick, Pulkingham and Ross returned to close out the concert. The final numbers included the wonderful Spanish number, “Mil Besos.” When the band said their final goodbyes, the audience refused to let Griffin go. I swear the roadies tried to turn on the house music, but the applause was too loud. Griffin came back one last time, caught off guard by the outpouring of love. Her coda to this great night of music was an acoustic reading of “Mary,” the second-to-last song on Flaming Red. As the last guitar note hung in the air, she bowed and waved, this time leaving for good.
Some may say that Patty Griffin is more a folk singer than a country artist. I disagree. Country music is derived from the folk music passed down from generations of people dating back to the men and women who founded the United States, built it, suffered to make it a better place, and raised their glasses in triumph for all that’s been accomplished. American Kid is a celebration of this country- the good, bad, sad and funny. Griffin is the embodiment of the American spirit and a true representative of what country music was and can still be.
On Tuesday night, she once again showed the depth of her talent. Over and over again I thought, “Why isn’t this woman a superstar? Why doesn’t she get the exposure she deserves from radio and TV?” It’s a wonder. Her music has a backporch quality that puts your mind and heart in a good place. If more people gave a listened to her the world would be a better place.