Patty Griffin is an unsung hero for blues, folk and soul music in the modern age. She’s run the gamut of every possible genre, picking up influences from jazz to classic folk and even, as she laughed at The Ark on Friday, characters like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Griffin is a tiny woman, her size countered by a cloud of strawberry blonde curls and a loud guffaw between songs. But the biggest thing about her, is, of course, her voice.
Last Friday night, Ann Arbor’s beloved folk venue sold out completely, audiences rushing to see Griffin in the intimate space of Main Street’s listening room. The songwriter has played at the Michigan Theater several times, but her appearance at The Ark marked a special opportunity for fans to join her in closer quarters, no more than 50 feet from the stage at the farthest seats. Opening for Griffin was Lucy Wainwright Roche, a fantastic songwriter in her own right and part of the famous Wainwright and Roche lineages of music. Wainwright Roche’s smooth voice and hilarious banter with the audience prepared them for a night of laughter and good music, and that they got.
As Wainwright Roche left the stage, all seated within the wooden walls of the venue buzzed in anticipation. It was a full house, saturated with excited new fans and longtime patrons of Griffin alike. Though the venue was filled with silver-haired listeners, there was also a surprising number of young members of the audience, a fact that proves Griffin’s universal appeal. She can do no wrong when it comes to live performance, given that her songs are often centered on the things we all have in common; grief, struggle, love. Through her raspy, soulful voice, Griffin has established a solid niche in the songwriting community, one that extends from her own projects into those of the Dixie Chicks and several other artists.
Griffin took the stage in a long black dress, her wild hair illuminated by the yellow stage lights in a sort of halo. She was joined by only a guitarist and drummer (who also played bass), incredible musicians in their own right. They both played piano during the performance at different times, handing guitars and tambourines across the stage in order to build Griffin’s clear voice into a woven landscape of sound. Just the three of them created an ambience that was equal parts intimate and perfectly produced. It seemed as if every wavering note in Griffin’s singing was put there on purpose, adding to the air of raw intensity that each of her songs evokes. She didn’t hit every high pitch, didn’t flip her voice around in acrobatics as most modern pop artists do, but in that restraint was Griffin’s power. By holding back at the right moments, the singer laid down a foundation of suspense that always broke at the right times, letting the floodgates open with sound at the right point during a bridge or chorus.
You could say that Griffin’s performance was careful in these ways, but it would be a lie. In her eyes throughout the night, the audience was well aware of a fire beneath the surface of Griffin’s petite frame, boiling out in her inimitable soul. No matter which song she sang, some from her new self-titled tenth album and some old favorites, this intensity laid comfortable underneath her voice. It’s the thing that strings all of her music together, despite the variety of genres and styles she chooses to adopt. In The Ark that night, this fire warmed the room easily, making each person sitting there feel a part of something bigger. If you have never listened to Griffin, it is a spiritual experience in the most simple of ways: She sings for the world, for all of us and none of us at the same time. Hearing someone’s soul come out of their mouth in beautiful harmony is an incredible thing to witness. And that is the thing Griffin is best at.