As soon as Patty Griffin opened her mouth, it was abundantly clear that we were in the company of someone who can really, really sing. I’d heard her on stage before as an impressive duettist and backing singer with Robert Plant and his Band of Joy, but here I was blown away by the full force of her vocal prowess.
The show’s first song provided ample evidence of her range and her strengths: on “Waiting for My Child to Come Home” her voice cut through the balmy air with steely precision in the manner of a Dolly or a Tammy, the song itself almost a pastiche of “The Tennessee Waltz”, but much bleaker. Then again, this was a tune that she had recorded with Mavis Staples, and there were moments when Griffin suddenly belonged in the same league as the great soul singers – not today’s melismatic show-offs, but the more restrained, disciplined giants of old. It was quite a start.
With David Pulkingham accompanying her on guitars, harmonies and foot-stomping, Griffin spent the next 90 or so minutes beguiling the audience with her voice, her songs and the stories behind them. “Chief”, about an eccentric native American in her home town in Maine, illustrated her empathy with the marginalised, the downtrodden, the dispossessed.
The ghost of her late father loomed large across much of the material from her recent album American Kid – her happy-sad vision of a carefree afterlife in “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”, the heartbreakingly simple “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone”, with its echoes in her gorgeous ringing voice of Jeff Buckley. Comic relief, meanwhile, came in “Get Ready Marie”, a self-penned Irish ballad inspired by the look of terror in the eyes of her grandmother in her wedding photograph, but told, cleverly, through the twinkling eyes of her grandfather.
As well as picking and plucking their guitars, Griffin and Pulkingham periodically let fly with a song such as “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida” (her dad’s special request, apparently), whose big open strummed chords brought to mind Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole”; or they chugged rhythmically on the bus-journey blues of “Stay on the Ride”.
Overwhelmingly, though, this show was about Patty Griffin’s remarkable voice: it swooped, it soared, it floated, it pierced, and it soothed like a healing balm.