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IN TUNE: An open letter to Patty Griffin

Photo Credit: graphy
Photo Credit: graphy
Photo Credit: graphy
Video Credit: YouTube
Video Credit: YouTube
Video Credit: YouTube
Video Credit: YouTube

Montclair wouldn’t have been my choice for a Friday night date. A bit too foo-foo (or is it faux faux ?) for me. Not enough gin joints. No honky-tonk on the jukeboxes — shoot, no jukeboxes. Seemed every other “bistro”  I passed on my way to the theater threw off a whiff of paciuli. Little did I know how comfy the Wellmont is, or that you’d be more enchanting than ever.

The viceral was there, as usual, with the thigh-high boots, the sequenced black vest and the leather skirt.

But those raven-ish curls and that gorgeous set of pipes doing what few do so well — expanding range, bringing it down deep and dirty, then soaring to the domed ceiling and back down again ….

You had me at “I’m standing in the shadow of the hill….”

Not very dignified for a man in his early 50s to have a crush or carry a torch, but that was me ablaze in the front row of the loge. And those were my tears during  “Mary,” the song you wrote for your grandma but one of the first I heard in the days after my mom passed in 2002.

After 20-some shows over the years, I have to say: You are smack-dab in your prime, girl. You plucked my heartstrings like a harp from Heaven.

I’m not knocking Wednesday’s show in Manhattan. But it had a rushed feel, as if your tour bus + trailer (I hope no one sleeps in there) were double-parked on 43rd Street outside Town Hall. Tonight’s show was more languid, free-flowing, easy.

They say people drown by fighting to stay above the water: You let go and float, at times buoyed by your brilliant band —  semi-surrounding you in a crescent. You saved me burning cheeks by keeping “Don’t Come Easy” from the set, but you had me grinning ear-to-ear watching you stomp, shake and shimmy through “Wade in the Water,”  “Move Up,” and your ode to Bonnie Raitt, “Stay on the Ride.”

I didn’t mention it in the review below, but “Standing” was such an apt, brilliant opener. You left yourself only a few choices of your own in these shows, but each has fit beautifully.

And then you surprised me.

Took me back to the night, some 15 years ago, when I was squirming through the 10th row to my seat at what was then the John Harms Theater in Englewood (now bergenPAC) to see Lucinda Williams: I  was suddenly stopped dead in my tracks by the thin redhead onstage with the huge guitar, singing Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car.”

To hear you cover his “Mansion on the Hill” Friday night, in the wake of the Gulf tragedy, reminded me of my days playing wiffle ball and stoopball in my working-class town, then hopping into our beat-up old rides to check out the tony towns of North Jersey — Tenafly, Alpine, Demarest. Some of those homes were a full block long, while we were squeezing four people in our apartments back home into three tiny rooms.

I questioned the indoctrined faith many times over since then, skeptical as a man of what I once feared as a boy — and wondering, as each, why that fear was necessary. Zen Buddhism offered some satisfying answers: If only it played better in a post-tech society of people hungry for the next moment. Some of us, like children, want to live forever in this one.

Thank you for bringing a different gift each time you come around — this time, exposing me to gospel tunes I hadn’t heard before. Thank you for covering Hank Williams’ “House of Gold,”  long one of my favorites, for caressing the words to Waylon Jennings’  simplistically eloquent “I Believe,”  and introducing me to Dorothy Love Coates (I didn’t have a pen, so I had to use pneumonics: “The Wizard of Oz” and the Cure).

Although I spent Wednesday admiring your elegant choices and your band’s chops, tonight I felt born again… and again… and again.

Faith isn’t something you find in a book, or through mindless ritual, or by dogmatic adherence to doctrine. It has to be coaxed from within — too often, unfortunately, by tragedy. By melding traditional hymns, Baptist-style stomps and your own melancholy melodies, you reaffirmed my belief that faith has its own design, one that can transform aching hearts, and maybe even save misguided ones.

Yours is a music so beautiful it could make angels cry….

I hear your voice, Patty, and my heart sings back: I am not alone.

Jerry DeMarco

MUSIC REVIEW : Patty Griffin, Town Hall, NYC, June 9, 2010/Wellmont Theatre, Montclair, June 11, 2010
If Patty Griffin touches you with her emotive ballads, wait ’till you hear her belt out gospel. In Montclair, she kept an audience rapt at times, and at others stomping and cheering, with a seamless blend of various denominational hymns, clever cover choices (how ’bout Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill”?) — and, of course, tunes that made her one of the most successful songwriters around.


The first time I saw our generation’s Rita Coolidge was in 1998. I was headed to my seat for a Lucinda Williams show when the thin, little-known redheaded waif on stage broke into Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car.”

Just like that, the usual opening-act audience murmur turned to stone-cold silence. Patty had them — and me — in her pocket.

Her smaller venue shows, of course, have been the most entertaining. During one at Housing Works in Soho five or so years ago, she did a version of “Don’t Come Easy” that ended with a chorus of sniffles throughout the room.

Griffin, 46, has dabbled with edgy rock, but her career to this point rests solidly on those kind of melancholy, heart-tugging tales of loneliness and hope for connection that can bring an entire audience to tears.

The raven-haired songstress is feeling the spirit now, though, and she’s got her old pal Buddy Miller helping her shoot for the soul. Miller, who opened Wednesday night’s show at Town Hall, produced Griffin’s latest album, “Downtown Church,” which was recorded — yes — in a downtown church in Nashville at a time when the three-time Grammy winner said she was questioning religious doctrine (A lovely mini-doc tells the album’s tale: The Making of “Downtown Church” ).

“Buddy has 86,000 songs on his iTunes,” said Griffin, dressed in dark, thigh-high boots and a satiny black and white dress that kept slipping off her left shoulder.

“When I told him I was making this album, he sent me 1,000 of them,” she told the awfully genteel Town Hall audience. “I listened to 500 of them.”

Jerry DeMarco Publisher.Editor

Several of them made it to the 14-track CD, including the lovely “Rainy Day,” and the raucous “Move Up (in Glory),“ which, in a different part of the country, would have definitely had the congregants on their feet and clapping in time.

Griffin brought it back down again, with Shawn Colvin joining her, for the riveting original “You’re Coming Home.” And she soared with (what else?) “Heavenly Day,” still the only love song she says she’s ever written — for her pint-sized dog, no less.

The unrecorded “Get Ready, Marie” had an Irish bounce, although it’s about her French-Canadian grandparents. Griffin said she wrote the suggestive lyrics after finding a sepia-toned photo of the couple, in which her grandfather looks like he can’t wait to get his new wife alone and his spouse seems to be second-guessing the deal.

Griffin laughed afterward: “We trashed it all up after that gospel stuff.”

Then, just as quickly, Griffin brought the crowd back to a hush, as Colvin backed her on “Mary,” the one original — more than any other — that always had an overwhelmingly spiritual feel.

Still, it wasn’t all solemn. Griffin at one point launched into a swamp rocker, then did the funky “Stay on the Ride,” from “Children Running Through.” Although comparisons to Bonnie Raitt are overly simplistic — and dead wrong — they’re not on that one.

Wednesday night’s biggest surprise may have been “If I Had My Way” (aka: “Samson and Delilah”) a traditional gospel chant more recently recorded by the Blasters while Dave Alvin was still with the band. She also revived an old number from Dorothy Love Coates, “The Strange Man,” perhaps one of the sultriest-sounding call-and-response singalongs about one Jesus Christ.

Most singer-songwriters of Griffin’s stature at some point take a shot at interpreting others’ work for a collection. Funny to hear her do it, though, considering the bounty she  has produced for, among others, Linda Ronstadt, the Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris, Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert, and Kelly Clarkson.

All that was missing were the Staple Singers for “Wade in the Water,” or when she and Miller combined on “(The Land Where We’ll) Never Grow Old,” written nearly a century ago.

Griffin then skipped a few decades to “House of Gold,“ a plaintive pledge by Hank Williams to toss all his worldly riches in exchange for a pure heart and eternal happiness.

An encore straight from the Sunday hymnal (“All Creatures of Our God and King,” taken from a text by St. Francis of Assissi) was followed by a stomper she called “our only heathen song on the album,” by 60s hit songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, called “I Smell a Rat.” She closed with the lovely “We Shall All Be Reunited.”

Politics and religion are risky subjects in the music business. But Griffin and Miller’s multi-denominational selections melded perfectly with her own songs, so that most newcomers likely wouldn’t know the difference.

Musicologists will easily remember Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Mavis and the Staples, Whitney Houston and, of course, the Rev. Al Green, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. After seven albums and 15 years onstage, Griffin has earned the right to use those golden pipes however she chooses, even if all of her fans don‘t follow.

After all, her feelings about dogma got her into exploring these tunes in the first place.

By the way: If you haven’t been, the acoustics, sightlines & polite, helpful staff at the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair make it worth the trip. Parking’s easy. And the “strip” offers tons of food choices…. Some good shows coming up, too. These guys know how to do it…. Meanwhile, Kyra Kverno’s outstanding photos can be found at: Kyra Kverno Photography

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