Nanci Griffith: One Fair Summer Evening… Plus! [DVD]

Nanci Griffith
MCA Nashville

MCA Nashville first released this document back more than 15 years ago to coincide with the release of the album of the same name. The video features Nanci Griffith performing live with a small band at The Anderson Fair nightclub in Houston, Texas during the summer of 1988. Griffith seems poised to become a major star, which she wistfully acknowledges by dedicating a song to the club and places like it across the nation as she implies she will be moving on to play bigger venues. Griffith did go on to greater success, including winning a Grammy Award, but she never really became a big star. She was too folk for country, too country for pop, too pop for rock, etc. Her music defied categorization and this quirkiness once made her marketable. However as tastes changed, Griffith really didn’t and remained true to herself. She is no longer a major label artist. Her second to last disc was on the independent label on which she started (Rounder) and her latest record is on her own record company imprint.

That said Griffith has always been and continues to be a critic’s darling because of her sweet voice, literate lyrics, simple and clear acoustic guitar style, and winsome good looks. Griffith is backed only by bass, keyboard and harmony vocals. She’s the kind of girl with which any sensitive boy would fall instantly in love. She’s tender, smart, witty, and attractive; non threatening, but clever not dull. I know. I fell in love with her all over again watching this DVD. Her bright eyes and sunny smile gladden the heart whether she sings about a past boyfriend (“Once in a Very Blue Moon”) or the life of a prostitute (“Lookin’ For the Time [Workin’ Girl])”.

Griffith doesn’t introduce many of the songs, and when she does she offers the sparsest of statements with only a few exceptions. She tells the story of going to the Woolworths on the corner of 6th Street and Congress Avenue in Austin when changing busses before singing “Love at the Five and Dime”. (There’s a Starbucks there now, which isn’t as different as it might seem, if you think about it.) Griffith explains what the mysterious “ding” noise that she plucks from her guitar on that song means — it’s the sound of the elevator arriving. Griffith recollects her early childhood days and her first best friend as she presents “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret)”. Griffith speaks in the same delicate tones in which she sings, and one has to listen carefully to catch every word. This can be unintentionally ironic, such as when she urges her lover to declare himself more forcefully in “More Than a Whisper”, but mostly her soft voice works at creating an intimate atmosphere appropriate to the material. And in comparison with the other tunes, she does sing “More Than a Whisper” in a strong tone.

The musical highlight is Griffith’s performance of Julie Gold’s “From a Distance”, recorded here two years before Bette Midler made it a mega-hit. In fact Midler’s brassy version mimics Griffith’s note-for-note, albeit on a grander scale, rather than Gold’s low-key rendition. Midler appears to have learned the song from Griffith rather than from the songwriter’s version. Griffith’s interpretation brings out the gentle side of the lyrics in contrast to Midler’s, which sounds more like a warning (just what does “God is watching us” really mean?).

The DVD is not a song by song analogue to the record. The album contains three more songs (“Roseville Fair”, “Trouble in the Fields”, and “The Wing in the Wheel”), but the video has two added cuts (“There’s a Light Beyond these Woods [Mary Margaret]” and the acapella “Wichita Falls Waltz”). The latter does not appear on any other Griffith release. In addition, the new “Plus” version of the DVD includes four music videos for songs from her MCA Nashville years (she moves on to Elektra in the early nineties) and one from a tribute to Buddy Holly tribute in which she sings with the original Crickets (“Well… All Right”). These show Griffith’s many sides, and reveal the ways in which her record company tried to sell her. The heartbreaking “I Knew Love” would fit country music video programming with its images of roses, wedding pictures, and tale of romantic regret. “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” explicitly compares the troubles in Ireland to America’s Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s and might fit in with MTV from the period. “I Don’t Want to Talk About Love” and “Late Night Grande Hotel” feature urban settings and seem appropriate for VH1.

RATING 7 / 10