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Like many cities, early summer is the time when Washington D.C. begins to heal itself from the pounding it has taken for much of the year. Between record-breaking snowstorms, a new generation of crazy protesters, metro disasters and the general traditional clownishness of professional life in a bureaucratic city, Washingtonians may have been coming off a season more bitter than most. It is also the best time of the year to attend a concert and Patty Griffin is possibly the ideal person to usher it in. She doesn’t sing songs of rage or inward pettiness but she instead attempts to understand sadness and the places where it bridges to a larger kinship. Cathartic cries and angry shouts may not be her stock in trade, but the flock of Patty, metaphorically cemented by a new record of gospel covers, Downtown Church, is a gathering place where stifling days give way to beautifully worthwhile nights.

Plunging herself into the forefront of the evening right away, she joined her Downtown Church producer Buddy Miller for much of his opening set. Already a considerable talent and something of a known commodity from his partnership with his wife Julie, Miller’s set was propelled to an extension of the headlining show and worthy of the quality of such a billing. Beginning on his own with the compelling ballad “That’s How I Got To Memphis,” the evening escalated to a high point early with Griffin and her rhythm section coming on stage. Miller and Griffin stopped hearts early in the evening with their duet on the slow cheatin’ heart ballad “Chalk” and raised the spirits of early rockabilly with “Gasoline and Matches.”

From there it was a short jog to Griffin’s own set, which featured Miller himself as part of her larger band. The older and largely mute crowd, stirred by Miller’s own set and captivated by the clear acoustics of the 9:30, which are sometimes unavailable for many other country acts that could benefit from them. Ready for more of the same energy, Griffin did them one better and raised the bar on her own set which spanned her career highlights in a nicely paced selection which didn’t suffer lulls or timidity gladly. The style of singing she practices is an older method of Appalachian country, long forgotten in much of the current West Texas scream and stomp of current pop country. Pursing her jaw into sharp squalors which bob up and down kept her live set fast on its heels as well as pleasing to the touch when backed by her sparse acoustic guitar and well-balanced band. She could recall the bounce of a ’50s pop gospel strum on the standard “Move Up” and then come down to her own wonderfully realized waltz on “Heavenly Day” without a jarring change in her own repertoire. Many years ago this might have made a sought after dance band commodity on the post-WWII country circuit which extended as north as Washington D.C. and Baltimore. While it seemed odd to be a club where you had to stand and observe her movements when that sort of dynamic present, it at least provided a fascinating glimpse into an older and perhaps more liberating format of dance hall and barroom honky tonk.

The stand out moment of the evening was Griffin’s solo set at the middle of her own tenure on the top of the bill. Covering Waylon Jennings’ own agnostic credo “I Do Believe” and then transitioning it to “Mary,” one her own best ambivalent songs about women and spirituality, summoned up something unexpected. It can be absolutely startling how visible her Maine-bred French roots become in the way her music delved into Americana and the dirty kitchen floor faith which either challenges or restores it. On her own terms she can be a country chanteuse who can delve in to porches and steeples of rural life while not sacrificing the pleasurable distance she has to comment on it.

An atheist Catholic by her own admission live and elsewhere, Griffin has always been reminiscent of indelible cross-over pop singers like Brenda Lee; staunch non-modernists who still embrace the whole buffet of contemporary acceptance and skepticism. As her own two encore steadily wound up and down with more dusty covers like Hank Williams’ “House of Gold” and the obscure and the newly re-discovered gem off of Downtown Church “We Shall All Be Reunited”, the salve which Miller and herself had applied throughout the night began to harden and heal the wounds of the city that surrounded them. Surreptitiously, it used to be the stock and trade of touring country acts to be immune from the local heartaches of a locale. They would promptly swoop in and then moving on their way just as quickly, leaving nary a trace besides old concert posters. Staunch in her own belief that no such power ever evaporated, Griffin showed that it can still be done and that, perhaps, the relief it afforded could last even longer than it did in the bygone era of jukeboxes and whiskey smoked music halls.

by Neal Fersko
Photos: Ron Baker

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