Patty Griffin, perfectly serene as always


A small cold couldn’t stop Patty Griffin from delivering a standout performance at the Birchmere on Monday. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
June 4, 2013

Patty Griffin’s voice is more soothing than something so trebly should be. Early into Monday’s show at the Birchmere, the second of two sold-out nights, the Austin-based artist told fans that her singing could be off due to an unshakable cold. She even warned that an accidental yodel might be forthcoming. But as usual, Griffin didn’t deliver an off note in a 90-plus-minute set full of moments of stunning tranquility, and for all her twang and whatever germs ailed her, that voice never cracked.

Backed for most of the show by an instrument-switching three-piece combo, Griffin loaded up on material from her just-released and critically beloved album, “American Kid.” It’s a collection full of family ties. Griffin, now 49, flaunted her Old Sod lineage on “Irish Boy,” a number about a loveless, rejected drunk, the sort of sad sack more likely to populate a Tom Waits tune. The title of “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” came from a line her father told her during a non-joking conversation they had before his 2009 passing. The tune was enough of a Sunshine State put-down (representative lyric: “If you catch me dying in Orlando/Throw my bed onto a train”) that had it come out in the 1970s, Lynyrd Skynyrd would have been compelled to produce a “Sweet Home Florida”-type answer song.

“Get Ready Marie” was a polka that Griffin explained was inspired by a photo of her grandparents taken at their wedding in the 1920s. In that shot, the groom looked awfully anxious to consummate the relationship, while Grandma just looked afraid.

She went back to 2002’s “1000 Kisses” for “Chief,” a melodic piece of melancholia that mulls the mundane manner in which lots of us use up our time on Earth. “I don’t know what I’m doing that for,” Griffin crooned in the perfectly serene, higher-frequency-favoring way she croons everything.

But Griffin’s set also hinted that some folks are merely biding time till the afterlife. Griffin admitted that her 2010 gospel record, “Downtown Church,” was something of a lark (“I’m not an aficionado,” she said), but she belted out material from the collection that won Griffin her only Grammy so far, including “Waiting for My Child” and “Coming Home to Me,” like a true believer.

A few tabloids reported recently that Griffin had married Robert Plant, her former bandleader in the Led Zeppelin reunion-busting roadshow, Band of Joy; both parties later told the press they were unwedded and merely living in sin in Texas. Yet after sending her band backstage to render a solo-acoustic version of “If I Had My Way,” she flipped her hair and banged her head the way a young Plant might have during “Whole Lotta Love” or some other hammer-of-the-gods classic. Her backups returned to add decibels and keep Griffin quite kinetic throughout 1998’s “Flaming Red.”

A placid and somber mood reigned during “That Kind of Lonely,” another new song with a chorus that had Griffin singing, “Everyone in this room wanted to be somewhere else.” On this night, in this room, the opposite was true.

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