Patty Griffin and band earlier this year
City Recital Hall, Sydney, March 10
Patty Griffin’s family roots are in Ireland: in the white, Catholic, working-class diaspora which flowed across the Atlantic and, in her case, rebuilt on the eastern seaboard of the USA.
If the many lyrical references over the years to sin, confession, justice and family hadn’t shown that already, fresh reminders came tonight in the close-held faith and deep emotion of When It Don’t Come Easy(which she performed solo, as modern mystic), the boisterous rush of joy in personal political power in Truth #2, and in the newer, Boys From Tralee, offered here as a kind of ceilidh preamble, with her versatile two-man band of guitarist David Pulkingham and multi-instrumentalist Conrad Chocroun not just busy in the bustling jig breakdown but somehow also suggesting the presence of bodhran and fiddle.
And if we were to extend that European line a bit further south it could explain how Mama’s Worried, which opened the night, brought more than a touch of chanson in the way Griffin sang without flourish but with quietly roiling intensity that made the drama flesh.
Patty Griffin’s musical roots though, range wider, go deeper: stretching from that Celtic and English folk loam to the fecund soil of blues and gospel and soul. This is where she reaps the greatest harvest.
In the woozy R&B of Hourglass (which all but demands you hear it with a glass of bourbon in your hand) and the low-slung chug of The Wheel, or the holy testifying of Move Up, Griffin, Pulkingham and Chocroun glowed with pure zeal.
And a solo Griffin ripped through a Texas roadhouse blues take on Stay On The Ride, her declaration that “I was born with no name, knowing nothing, still I don't” a blast of defiance. This was fun.
But then in River, a spiritual that would tear the roof off in the hands of a full gospel choir but in this format rises to meet you with such heart and love, and the desert stillness of 250,000 Miles, with Arabic flavours in percussion, guitar and drone, and disquiet in its marrow, Griffin’s ability to weave darkness through light was elevated further.
It brought to mind one of my favourite aphorisms about her old country (usually misattributed to W. B. Yeats but probably never said by anyone other than journalists looking for a pithy line), that being Irish she had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained her through temporary periods of joy.
As joyful as she was for this show, we didn’t get the full splendour of Griffin’s voice: it felt about 70-80 per cent of what we heard 13 years ago when she was last here. But given two years ago treatment for cancer had her without a voice at all, I doubt anyone would be complaining. It’s still a beautifully expressive instrument.
After all, in Standing she held the centre with a plaintive reading which brought solace but also fervour, and then she cast aside anything protective in Luminous Places, a song that looked back to Hoagy Carmichael and forward to loss - “They say don’t think for a second that you won’t become one more voice on the wind” – so that vulnerability felt so tender.
Griffin earned the two standing ovations, not just because she, Pulkingham and Chocroun kept us entranced for 100 minutes, but because anyone who can send us away with the glorious life-as-living-church Heavenly Dayfilling our spirits as if we were part southern Baptist, part Irish Catholic, has wrought something wonderful.
Patty Griffin plays The Tivoli, Brisbane, March 12, and Lismore City Hall, March 13.