A native of the small mill town of Old Town, Maine, Patty Griffin has lived in Austin for several decades. This past summer, she decided to take time off and stay home to write songs. But Austin was hit with a heat dome, and Patty found herself oppressed by the heat, stuck inside, and unable to be productive, instead watching a lot of TV.
Somewhat surprisingly at her recent show at The Birchmere, Patty mentioned she had been watching a lot of shows about UFOs. When she mentioned this, the audience tensed up a bit, afraid that Patty, like so many artists, had gone off the deep end into conspiracy theories and such wackiness, but she assured the crowd that she hadn’t.
This was all a roundabout of Patty’s getting to saying that she’s “a big fan of many celestial bodies, especially the Moon.” (This reminds me I need to get back to working on my Moon-themed playlist.) She’s written about the moon in many of her songs, and the title of her song “250,000 Miles” refers to the distance between Earth and its satellite. That distance is used as a metaphor for the distance migrants and refugees feel from their homelands. It’s Patty at her best, compassionate and empathetic.
An excellent singer and performer in her own right, Griffin has achieved her great success a songwriter. She’s been covered by a wide range of artists, from country artists like Martina McBride, Jessica Simpson, Emmylou Harris, Miranda Lambert and Mary Chapin Carpenter to soul singer Solomon Burke. She’s toured with The Chicks and Neko Case, who’ve acknowledged her influence.
Griffin’s music is spiritual, if in an unconventional way, and she expressed this at The Birchmere on Sept. 18. After singing a cover of the Swan Silvertones’ “Move Up,” she said, “I do love Jesus, but we’re not exclusive.” She’s described herself as a “lapsed Catholic.” Classic gospel has influenced her work heavily, and that was influenced was made clearest by her 2010 album, Downtown Church, which consisted mainly of classics of that genre.
Patty’s set kicked off with “Truth #2,” after which she introduced her band, David Longoria on drums and frequent collaborator David Pulkingham on guitar. The set continued with “Hourglass,” the first of two cuts from her 2019 Grammy-winning self-titled album. After “250,000 Miles,” she played “Cold As It Gets.” “All The Way Home,” she said, “is a song about ghosts,” inspired by walking by an old graveyard while she in was Marfa, a small town in the high Texas desert known for its artistic community, on a writing retreat.
Watch Patty Griffin perform for an NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert on YouTube:
The next song, “Up On The Mountain (Song for MLK),” dug into the progressive strain that runs throughout her catalog, while “Mother of God” dealt with her working-class upbringing in Maine. The band then left the stage, and Patty did a solo acoustic version of “Mary.” The band came back for “Standing.”
As the set wound down, Patty played “Shine A Different Way” from 2015’s Servant of Love, followed by the second cut of the night from Patty Griffin, “Luminous.” The set finished up on “No Bad News,” and the audience brought Patty and her band back out with a standing ovation, and they did “A Word” to send the audience home.
Scott Miller won The Birchmere crowd over with a terrific opening set that showcased his wit and songcraft. He came out on crutches and sat down, explaining that he’d had his leg broken by a cow a few weeks ago. For more than a decade, Miller has run his family’s farm in Staunton, Virginia, also taking care of his aging mother. He explained how caring for an old person is like dealing with an old cow: you have to close the gates where you don’t want them to go and open the gate where you do want them to, and then you have to wait until they decide it’s their idea to go there. There’s a lot of truth in this: my sister and I have concerns about our mother’s driving, and we have to try to get her to think that stopping, or at least driving less, is her idea.
In the ’90s, Miller led the band the V-Roys, who were signed to Steve Earle’s short-lived record label, E-Squared. Miller called Earle his mentor, and shared one of Steve’s trademark zingers which was appropriate to his current condition: “Miller, you’re too young and too white to play sitting down!” Self-effacing and humble, he joked that “I write songs and sing ’em, and I raise cows and I sell ’em, and I’m good at one of those things.”
Scott kicked off his set with “Freedom’s A Stranger.” The next song, “It’ll Never Be That River,” is about 1969’s Hurricane Camille. The set continued with “How Am I Ever Gonna Be Me,” followed by “Epic Love” and “Mary.” “Angels Dwell Among Us,” he mentioned, featured Patty on the recording. Between songs, his sense of humor shined again, when he thanked the Birchmere for allowing to come back and declared, “That last incident wasn’t my fault.” He finished up with “Made A Mess of This Town” and “Someday, Sometime,” after which the audience rewarded him with a well-deserved standing ovation.
Patty’s singing is what stands out most about any of her performances. And while this is definitely folk music, the trio format brought out the rock & roll that’s in there, too. Patty was in top form, and Scott Miller, who I’d not seen before, was a delight, making for an all-around excellent evening.