Patty Griffin at the Warner: Such Sweet Sorrow

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

Nothing seems to make Patty Griffin happier than sounding disconsolate: The gifted singer-songwriter specializes in melancholy music -- pensive songs whose incisive, exquisite lyrics are often marked by an incredible sense of sadness and loneliness.

During a marvelous concert on Tuesday night at the Warner Theatre, Griffin found comfort on the darkest pages of her rich catalogue. But she also veered from her core competency to sing something . . . cheerful.

That was the plan anyway, with Griffin telling the audience that she'd recently been talking to a songwriter friend (she didn't say which one) when they both came to a realization. "We had no happy songs at all," Griffin said, prompting the audience to laugh -- perhaps because her own fans have known as much ever since Griffin's stark, somber debut album, "Living With Ghosts," was released in 1996.

Griffin said she was inspired to write a "happy" song, "Burgundy Shoes," which she then performed at a piano. It's an entrancing, ethereal ballad about Griffin's childhood in Maine -- in particular, that yearly point when the dreary winter weather was swept away by the bright glow of spring. "The leaves are green and new like a baby," she sang. "Tulips are red / Now I don't miss the snow."

The lyrics were optimistic, but the tune still sounded somber: There was a sadness to Griffin's crystalline soprano and an emotional heaviness to her long-lined piano melody, which was accented by a cello.

But for Griffin, the song -- from her new album, "Children Running Through" -- seemed different. So much so that she was compelled to respond with a flurry of truly dark tunes, from the indignant "You Never Get What You Want" to the aching "Mary." There was also "Not Alone," a gently devastating song about a dead lover, which Griffin performed solo, singing quietly over the low strum of her acoustic guitar.

The audience was rapt.

Griffin was relieved, referring to the material as "a bunch of sad songs I had to get out of my system after singing the happy one. Whew! I feel better now."

Griffin makes gorgeously plain, honest music, and she was similarly styled onstage: For her date at the ornate Warner, she had on a black leotard, a green tulle skirt over black tights, and scarlet peep-toe slingback pumps, with her cranberry-red hair pulled back into a ponytail. She appeared as though she'd been rushed out of wardrobe and onto the stage while still trying to decide what to wear.

Let other artists worry about image; Griffin's only concern seems to be her craft, which she's mastered.

Griffin, 43, is among the more celebrated songwriters of her generation, with a couple of Grammy nominations, a prominent place (19th) on Paste magazine's recent list of the "100 Best Living Songwriters" and an expansive list of well-known fans. Among those who have recorded Griffin's songs are Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris and, most profitably, the Dixie Chicks.

But Griffin doesn't just have a way with words. She can also deliver them artfully and convincingly, with an outsize voice. It's a thing of beauty, a remarkably powerful instrument of clarity and range, moving effortlessly from a whisper to a bluesy, pitch-perfect wail.

During Tuesday's 22-song set, Griffin performed with a band that added and subtracted parts and players. Sometimes there was nothing more than economical guitar accompaniment by her longtime sideman Doug Lancio, as on the chilling, gospelly Martin Luther King tribute "Up to the Mountain." But the band often played as a four-piece, and occasionally things even turned raucous, as with the electrifying, Dylanesque concert-closer, "Getting Ready." But even as the sound swelled, Griffin's voice was never in danger of being drowned out. She may be a wisp of a woman, but she can flat-out belt, singing with depth and soul.

And as it turns out, on occasion she can sing sans sadness: Tuesday, Griffin performed the new "Heavenly Day," which she called her first attempt at writing a love song. It was warm and sweet, a soul-stirring gem that's destined to become a staple at weddings. Oh happy day indeed.

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