Saint Patty

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day today, and to celebrate the work of my favorite singer-songwriter, I’m posting my review of Patty Griffin’s concert Friday night at the Warfield in San Francisco. There is a theater tie-in: she’s writing a Broadway musical for the Atlantic Theatre in New York that’s supposed to begin performances in May.

Singular singer-songwriter Griffin shines in S.F. birthday concert

You might not recognize the lady in the goofy party hat as one of this country’s finest singer-songwriters. In fact, you might not recognize her at all — with or without the festive headgear.

If you don’t know Patty Griffin, you may know some of her songs. The Dixie Chicks are big fans and have recorded Griffin’s “Let Him Fly,” “Truth No. 2” and “Top of the World.” Even Jessica Simpson found post-Nick solace in “Let Him Fly.”

Other pop mavens _ Bette Midler, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris among them _ have recognized Griffin’s distinctive voice, yet she remains an obscure treasure. She has her fans to be sure, lots of them.

The Bay Area Griffin contingent turned out in force last Friday at the Warfield in San Francisco for what turned out to be a giant birthday party. The day before St. Patrick’s Day happens to be Griffin’s birthday (hence her first name, Patricia).

She turned 43 during her swing through the Bay Area to promote the new album, “Children Running Through,” which happens to be her best collection of songs yet — and that’s saying something. She hasn’t really written a bad song, but they just keep getting better and deeper.

Dressed in a festive green ’50s-style dress with a belt and a full skirt, the ever-ebullient redhead was treated to an impromptu birthday serenade from the audience, and during the encore, her band offered her a cake complete with candles (not 43) and a balloon.

Funny thing is, though, Griffin was the one doling out the presents. Her 100-minute set, accompanied by a four-piece band (guitar, electric bass, upright bass and drums), was full of tuneful treasures from the new album and from her rich catalogue.

Though her musicianship is superb — she played both acoustic guitar and piano — and her clarion voice remains as bright and strong as ever, Griffin’s greatest strength is her ability to tell stories that convey mood and emotion through perfectly matched words and notes.

Now, you might think all songs do that, but they don’t. You can have good words and a nice melody, but the two don’t necessarily work to tell the same story.

When Griffin sings a song like “Burgundy Shoes” off the new album, for instance, she begins quietly, conveying a childhood memory about an early spring bus trip with her mom from their Maine home into the nearest town, which happened to be Bangor.

There’s a childlike simplicity to the song, but complexity enters in as memories return: her mother’s red lipstick, the coldness of the vinyl seat, a hummed pop song (the Beatles’ “Michelle”). And then there’s a burst of pure joy in the repetition of a single word: sun.

It’s a gorgeous song, and Griffin sings it with the kind of intimate passion that she brings to most of her material. Though sad songs about flawed people struggling to hold on to some kind of faith or hope are her specialty, Griffin can let loose when she wants to.

Some of her more upbeat moments Friday night included the twangy “Stay on the Ride,” the rapturous “No Bad News,” the bluesy “Love Throws a Line” and the rousing “Getting Ready.” She even offered a gospel-tinged love song, “Heavenly Day,” and admitted she’d actually written it to her dog.

But for all her spirit and zest, Griffin is at her best when she’s giving voice to the darker side of day-to-day life. “Trapeze” from the new album is a stunning song about an aging trapeze artist in a run-down circus. “One of these nights the old girl’s going down,” she sang.

In “I Don’t Ever Give Up,” a quintessential Griffin creation, Griffin crafts a portrait of despair: “I’m no fighter but I’m fighting…I’m not clean; I’m not washed up.” But the bleakness is tinged with cautious hope: “Love isn’t here, but it’s somewhere.”

When Griffin sets out to move her audience, she does so with apparent ease. There’s a quality in her voice that wavers effortlessly between pain and joy, so she can rock through her ode to the gay kid in her homeroom class who committed suicide (“Tony”), or she can conjure the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. in the sublime hymn, “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song).” Both impeccably crafted songs brings tears — maybe for different reasons, maybe not.

Patty Griffin may not be one of our best-known singer-songwriters, but she’s undoubtedly one of the best. Those of us who have fallen under her spell have fallen hard. She’s great on record — as the new disc attests — but in person, especially in a green dress and a party hat, she’s everything you hope music to be.

Visit Patty Griffin’s Web site here.

One thought on “Saint Patty

  1. Thank goodness you were there to capture Patty in all her emerald glory. Your review is a welcome balm to the sores I’ve caused from kicking myself for missing it. Fantastic writing!

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