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Patty Griffin’s music is a bit like sadomasochism.
I seriously doubt this is what the flower children and folk enthusiasts at the 16th annual Old Settler’s Music Festival in Austin, Texas, were thinking when Griffin walked out on stage at this rustic venue bathed in smells of barbecued sausage and grilled corn cobs. But this is what I was thinking as I watched people all around me alternate between singing aloud and dancing, and then dabbing their eyes, throughout Griffin’s compelling set.
Griffin’s voice will do it to you again and again. In one instant, her voice is so full of emotion that you’ll find yourself knee-deep in memories of loss and heartache and other things that make you sniffle. Yet, never nearing melodrama, her voice is so pleasing that it leaves you starved for more whippings from this person with the voice and lyrical eloquence to aptly express the depth of shared human experiences. And before you know it, just when you think you might saturate your neighbor’s shirt sleeve with snot and tears, Griffin reliably cranks things back up, swiftly carrying you from a delicate melody into a tenacious, toe-tapping rock tune or a sexy old Latin standard.
A darling of the Austin music scene, Griffin was all smiles when she skittered onto stage, tempering her wild orange curls and fiery red dress with a tattered denim jacket. Hushing the crowd’s ongoing cheers and clapping, Griffin opened her set with the reflective “Long Ride Home”, which, like many of her songs, illustrates the strength in storytelling guiding her music as she details the feeling of a widow coming home from a loved one’s funeral: “Headlights searching down the driveway / The house is dark as it can be / I go inside and all is silent / It seems as empty as the inside of me.”
The radio-friendly “Rain” is another of Griffin’s more somber songs that, as soon as the first few guitar plucks carried over the speakers, brought an excitable audience to stillness. Backed by an accordion, a mandolin, and stand-up bass, Griffin, who is often likened to Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, wielded her hefty acoustic guitar as she sang along with choked up folks (yes, women and men) in the audience about the sorrow of a failing relationship.
But people soon picked themselves up off the ground and kicked up some dirt when Griffin moved into “Flaming Red”, the rousing title track off of her second album that shows Griffin’s feistier side. With flickering purple and green lights illuminating her reds and oranges, Griffin pounded on her guitar and showed the fire in her own belly as she howled into the microphone. “Flaming red / Walkin’ in my red shoes / And I get so worn out / Walkin’ in my red shoes/And my soles are torn out.”
Given only an hour to perform, Griffin cranked out a few songs from her newest album, 1,000 Kisses, including the sultry “Mil Besos” and the lonely “Making Pies”, as well as older tunes like “Sweet Lorraine” and “Top of the World”, for which she stood alone on stage and with closed eyes, marching in place, crooning about the broken wings of a songbird as streaks of purple and orange flickered against the face of her guitar. Before closing with “Swing Me”, the catchy pop song Griffin wrote that has gained extensive popularity through the version performed by the Dixie Chicks, she took a moment to touch on the controversy surrounding the Dixie Chicks and their remarks about President Bush.
“Whatever your politics may be, whether it’s eating chocolate or driving SUVs, everyone deserves to be treated with respect.” Referring to Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Griffin reminded her mixed Texas audience that, “she did apologize for insulting the president and is entitled to those opinions. That’s all I have to say about that.” Nobody pulled out any shotguns in protest of “anti-patriotism”, so it’s safe to say Griffin was well received.
As people cleared the field upon Griffin’s exit, it was evident that many festival-goers were willing to fork out the $40 day-pass fee just to see Griffin, particularly when the next act came out and the field was noticeably more barren. Strangely, despite regional accolades, Griffin still hasn’t seemed to get the attention she deserves. But people who know her music probably want to keep it that way. Tonight, after demonstrating in just 60 minutes her skill in traversing musical genres and in producing fresh, moving songs, Griffin reminds again and again that she is a pearl in an ever-growing sea of singer/songwriters. And that’s all I have to say about that.