Nanci Griffith + Clive Gregson and Le Ann Etheridge
Nanci Griffith put her guitar down for the first time in the middle of her set to speak to the audience: “It’s a real pleasure to sing this next song here in Des Moines, because I wrote it for my stepfather, whose family comes from the nearby town of Newton.”
The audience issued a burst of applause; there appeared to be some of her step-dad’s family in the crowd. The Texas songbird then told the story of her stepfather, who married her mom when she was a girl of ten. He fought in the Second World War and was twice captured as a P.O.W. He was also a fine piano and horn player, who not only taught his step-daughter how to write musical notation, but performed in Woody Herman’s Big Band and was a friend and collaborator with the legendary Hoagy Carmichael.
Nanci sang his tribute in “Beautiful”, using plenty of exaggerated body gestures. She mimicked her step dad’s blaring trumpet, fingering the keys and even scatted a few tones for her phantom horn: “Bwapa-bwaa-bwaa.”
After the song ended, Griffith told the crowd that she recently performed “Beautiful” on TV’s The Late Show at David Letterman’s request. She called her step-dad afterwards and asked if he had seen it. He told her that she looked pretty and sounded lovely. She asked, “Did you hear me scat?” She said he responded with a gentle rebuke, “You shouldn’t have done that.”
Griffith laughed and her eyes twinkled as she told the story. “I’m only a folk singer. Scat singing is like yodeling, you’re either born to do it or you’re not.” This friendly family story was just one example of Griffith’s good humor and charming presence throughout the night.
She and her band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, did a marvelous job playing tracks from her latest disc, Hearts in Mind, and old hits from her vast back catalogue. She dedicated several songs to American troops abroad. Many of Griffith’s new tunes, such as the haunting “Heart of Indochine”, were inspired by recent experiences visiting Vietnam and other locations across the globe as part of her efforts on behalf of Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation’s Campaign for a Landmine Free World.
For some reason, Griffith wore an oversize Nixon/Agnew button on her guitar strap, but she clearly did not endorse the Republican administration of her youth. “It’s been 30 years since we began the process of peace and reconciliation with Vietnam. Let’s hope it’s not 30 years until we reach peace and reconciliation with Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s bring the boys home,” Griffith urged. Most of the audience, though not everyone, clapped in approval.
The show began with the newest members of Griffith’s group, guitarists Clive Gregson and Le Ann Etheridge, performing self-penned material as a duo. Gregson, a former member of Richard Thompson’s band and the new wave combo Any Trouble, has a wry way of looking at the world and his songs move to a rollicking beat. Etheridge, a former Nashville picker, writes more wholesome, country-based tunes of love and relationships.
Gregson and Etheridge have accompanied Griffith for several years, and Griffith’s recorded several of their songs and co-written tunes with them. But that’s nothing compared to Griffith’s history with the other two members of the Blue Moon Orchestra, drummer Pat McInerney and keyboard player James Hooker. McInerney and Hooker have played, written, and recorded with Griffith for more than 18 years.
The four members of the Blue Moon Orchestra operate almost as a family unit, trading licks and harmonizing together without a hitch. Not coincidentally, McInerney and Etheridge are married to each other, a fact Griffith mentioned while on stage.
Griffith introduced many of her songs with short anecdotes, or made remarks after the tunes were over. This gave the concert an intimate feeling, as if the audience were part of some extended reunion. There were lots of graying pates in the crowd; she was among old friends who have listened to her for years.
Griffith’s voice has deepened over the years. The singer knew enough to start off her songs on a lower pitch so that she would not have to strain to reach for the high notes. This seemed especially evident on the tunes she recorded in the ‘80s, such as “Love at the Five and Dime” and “Workin’ in Corners”. Still, Griffith’s idiosyncratic trill and clear enunciation of the lyrics made each note distinctively hers. The Texas songbird has a voice like no other, and while time has had an effect on her range, the vocals bore her trademark qualities. Her talent is as personal as everything else she does, and nobody sings quite like her.