Monday, March 27, 2006

Patty Griffin -- Impossible Dream

Two-time Grammy nominee (always the maid of honor and not yet a bride) Patty Griffin tours endlessly, honing her performances and retelling her stories to sold out shows across the U.S. The recently turned-42 singer pours herself into each show, releasing the emotional latch on the suitcase of her lyrics just before she strides onto the stage with an unmeasured precision and power only a truly gifted singer can unleash night after night. She's touring the east coast in April with some dates in the south and California later this summer.

Unassuming on stage, her physical stature is sparse in contrast to her soaring heart-wrenching guitar and vocals. She stands at the mic, a waif-like strawberry-blonde with a powering alto voice crooning out slice-of-life stories to tempos both fast and slow, hard and soft.

I was torn for years about the greater worth in a Patty Griffin collection between Flaming Red and 1000 Kisses and was somewhat underwhelmed by Impossible Dream (she also released a live CD, A Kiss in Time, in 2003) Patty is certain to please if you connect with her storytelling yet wanes with time as shows become somewhat mundane. Perhaps I expect too much from this prolific songwriter/singer? Perhaps ... although she still puts on one hell of a fantastic show for those who are new to her art. I've seen her no less than six times so maybe I just experienced "Patty burnout." She is currently writing songs for an upcoming CD without a release date.

I saw her perform alongside some really standout acoustic performers with the "Concerts for a Landmine Free World" 2001 tour which was done round robin style with all of them sitting on stage next to each other and I have to say, she really stole the show from the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Cockburn, Steve Earle, and Nanci Griffith. There was a very pronounced hush when it was her turn to sing: it was as if the entire hall sensed something amazing around the bend. We weren't disappointed each time Patty performed previews to her gorgeous 1000 Kisses melodies alongside gems from Flaming Red and her debut, Living with Ghosts.

Living with Ghosts, released 10 years ago, was recorded much like Michelle Shocked's Texas Campfire Songs, a raw demo tape made in her kitchen. It was almost released in a highly edited, band heavy, format but she fought that battle and won. At one point, you can hear a siren wailing outside. It's pure Patty and glorious in her stripped down essence.

Flaming Red, her most rocking CD to date, was released two years later followed by an unreleased Silver Bells in 2000, some of which was re-worked and re-titled 1000 Kisses, an acoustic set of intensely personal stories, released in 2002. Dave Matthews met her during an Austin City Limits recording in 2000 and was so blown away by her talent that he asked her to join ATO records to release 1000 Kisses. Her live CD, Kiss in Time, came out in 2003, and Impossible Dream hit the airwaves in 2004.

Incidentally, she never got the master tapes to Silver Bells but the songs are actively traded online. Her exposure as an act in the Lilith Tour and several recordings by the Dixie Chicks and Emmylou Harris helped catapult her career to larger audiences. Two Grammy nominations for Best Contemporary Folk Album didn't hurt either (one for 1000 Kisses and one for Impossible Dream).

Thunderous applause meets her live performances of "Making Pies" and "Let Him Fly." Not many artists can pen a song about masturbation ("Wiggley Fingers" from Flaming Red) and receive artistic merit for such mental meanderings but Patty sure can. She has also written about Native Americans in "Chief," the inspiration for which probably stemmed from her youth in Maine growing up next door to the Penboscot Indian Reservation.

One of her more talked about songs is "Tony," a song about a young girls' observations in her homeroom seat behind a misfit teenager who takes his own life. Clearly, she feels the tug of how unfair life can be, especially to the innocent. This song does a good job of exposing how incredibly Patty can spin a life incident into a song any listener can "see" and connect with through images. We've all known a "Tony."

"Does anyone remember Tony?
He was a quiet boy, a little over weight
He had breasts like a girl
When I wasn't too busy feeling lonely
I stared over his shoulder at a map of the world
He always finished all his homework
Raised his hand in homeroom
For the morning attendance
And to pledge allegiance to the gloom

Hey Tony what's so good about dying?
(He said I) think I might do a little dying today
He looked in the mirror
Saw that little faggot staring back at him
Pulled out a gun and blew himself away

I hated every day of high school
Funny I guess that you did too
It's funny how I never knew
There I was sitting right behind you
They wrote in the local rag
Death comes to the local fag
So I guess you finally stopped believing
That any hope would ever find you
I knew that story I was sitting right behind you

Hey Tony what's so good about dying?
Think I might do a little dying today
He looked in the mirror
Saw that little faggot staring back at him
Pulled out a gun and blew himself away

He pulled out a gun and blew himself away
He pulled out a gun and blew himself away


I'd suggest starting your adventure with Patty Griffin by listening to Living with Ghosts and then proceeding onto Flaming Red in huge doses followed by a healthy dollup of 1000 Kisses. Repeat as needed (and it's sure to be needed every so often as a yardstick against which you can measure other acoustic/folk/rockers).

Her website, Patty Griffin, is awful. She definitely needs to hire a better web designer. You'll learn more and get access to all of her lyrics on Patty Net. Another great site that includes a sign-up for a Patty Griffin mailing list is Patty Griffin Net. All Patty all the time.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Rufus Wainwright -- Poses

"Cigarettes and chocolate milk. These are just a couple of my cravings." These two lines open the Poses CD and hold the listener rapt. His voice rises and falls, lulls and inspires, over acres of intelligent lyrics meant for repeat listenings at high volumes underneath the Sunday crossword and a giant slab of java or full tilt for a very long road trip. This is Rufus Wainwright's loves, missteps, and New York City lifestyle laid out on a platter for gulps of borderline operatic pleasure tinged with top-40 aspirations.

Rufus Wainwright, child of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III and sister to Martha Wainwright, produced a stellar CD on Poses released in 2001. I didn't find this gem until 2003 but it was well worth the wait. Once you find it and connect with the 14-song artistic swell, you can't stop listening to it for months. I had the same reaction to David Gray's White Ladder in 2000 and, prior to that, Sarah McLachlan's Building a Mystery released in 1997. Poses mesmerizes the mind and strings its catchy hooks into cranial regions yet explored.

I won't pretend to know everything there is to know about Rufus nor his music. You can read all about that on Roger Bourland's "Red Black Window" web log. Roger Bourland has even taught college courses about Rufus' music -- way out of my Rufus league.

I can only speak to the enormous and instantaneous attraction to Rufus' lyrics, and incredible orchestration. The CD is filled with the standard drums, guitars, and piano accented by the unusual use of dobro, slide guitar, mandolin, and strings. The CD's gorgeous melodies swell underneath Rufus' storybook lyrics.

You can throw this CD into the player and close your eyes for transportation into stories filled with longing, drugs, gay club culture, and love. To say that Rufus is tender would be the understatement of the year, perhaps the decade. In a world filled with cruising men, he takes the brunt of the injury into his genius songwriting and culls it to dramatic heights as "poses."

Even the liner lyrics are written across the double page, requiring you to concentrate on the words and punctuation until it forms one blurred, wave-like roll of hurt, anticipation and heaving emotion.

This is the kind of CD you can build an entire dinner party around. It's that provocative and funky in a soulful way. Make sure you put on "Tower of Learning" just as the second or third bottle of red wine is uncorked and the main entree is served. The song begins to the half-notes of looking for the tower of learning and swells instrumentally and lyrically accompanied with a driving drum beat, a chorus, and funky guitars to the leaning tower in Paris.

He's slated to recreate Judy Garland's "Live From Carnegie Hall" at, where else, Carnegie Hall in NYC this June for two shows (not sold out according to the Carnegie Hall ticketing site as of today -- damned near sold out though with tix in the waaay back). Rufus' last two CD's Want One and Want Two were kind of lost on me. They didn't hold the same fascination and adoration I had for Poses, perhaps because they were more operatic in nature. I can say that Rufus fans adore them. They were recorded back-to-back but released a year apart.

"Grey Gardens" on Poses was written about the musical "Grey Gardens" based on a very sad documentary from the Mayles' Brothers made in the mid-70s or so. It's the name of a mansion that an old mother and her slightly crazy middle-aged daughter lived in, in squalor. Cats. Squirrels, other animals roam the house. The daughter talks about how she was going to be a singer and marry Joe Kennedy Jr. She wears wacky clothes and blames her mother for keeping her there. They're pack rats and seem to live in a time warp of when things were better. Rufus actually uses a sound bite of Edie saying something like "it's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present, you know what I mean?" They're famous because of the documentary and because they were Jackie Beauvior (sp?) Kennedy's cousins. The mother died in the 80's and Edie died a few years ago. Yup. it's a laugh riot. Perfect material for a musical . . . NOT [blatantly stolen from Leigh Hampton in an email to me about the song].

My fondest memory of this CD will always be introducing my good friend to it on a drive to New York City to see our friend battling cancer and him falling in absolute love with it. We played it 10 times that trip up and back from Pittsburgh to NYC. It was adoringly fitting that my friend fell in love with it on the way up because when we walked in the door of our dear friend's apartment, it was playing in the background. One of those beautiful days in life that live on long after they're gone.

This CD will bring years of joy to your audio listening and transport you to places best experienced alone or with the best of friends or with family (hey, it's all over the map). If all else fails and you hate the CD, you should at least appreciate Rufus' take on "Across the Universe" by the Beatles. It closes this brilliant CD with a force de-jour that may just make you a convert.

If you want to check out Rufus Wainwright's music, check out his tasteful (yet slow loading) and expansive website. After all "life is a game and true love is a trophy." Well said, Rufus ... well said. Poses is his most accessible CD to date and a fine introduction to this incredible singer/lyricist. NOTE: Not for the squeemish or those who admonish gay and lesbian people as satan's brother.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Lucinda Williams -- "Live @ the Fillmore"

Lucinda Williams, affectionately called Lu by adoring fans, has been strumming her guitar and belting out contemporary country/blues songs since the late 70's when she issued her first studio effort featuring cover songs on Ramblin'. Throughout her extensive touring over the last three decades, it was a pretty safe bet that she was three sheets to the wind on stage. During last night's show at The Byham Theater in Pittsburgh, she seemed more alert and interactive with the crowd. I can't say for sure but I'd bet there was something tasty in the two huge red cups she sipped throughout her 90-minute show. At one point, when Doug Pettibone stood up and moved across the stage to play pedal steel, she asked him where he was going in this little girl voice reminiscent of Bette Midler in The Rose.

I've been watching this gritty powerhouse since the early 90's when I was lucky enough to catch her show at the now defunct Graffiti Showcase on Baum Boulevard. I've been wracking my brain trying to remember who she played with but it hasn't come to me yet. Back then, she was touring her Lucinda Williams CD released on Rough Trade Records (also now defunct) and she appeared on a dimly lit stage with her namesake "beat to hell and back" cowboy hat and dirty cowboy boots. She was shy as a performer, almost uncertain she could sing the next song after mumbling hushed song titles to a small appreciative crowd. I bought her CD that night without hesitation and played it often over the next six years. She played my favorite at last night's acoustic duo with Doug Pettibone, "Am I Too Blue." It was a standout in the show as was her performance of "Right in Time."

Williams has a knack for "he done me wrong and now I'm going to make him pay" song lyrics. In a novice's hands, these songs might fail as country knock offs. Perhaps the ability to capture life's darker moments in words is in her blood. Her father is a published professor of poetry and joined up with her a few years ago to do a live reading of his poems between her songs. I missed that show but it got some decent reviews. We heard a new song last night "Rescuer" that sounded like a little girl's lament about father's not being able to make everything perfect in the world. She also sang "Jailhouse Tears" and "Tears of Joy" back to back, the latter of which she explained is a song about her new life of happiness with her man.

She reassured the audience that she has plenty of dark moments in the well that she can dip into for inspiration and went on to say she realized that life doesn't have to be so hard in order to write good songs. It was odd in a way, hearing Lu talk about her desire for a fulfilling, loving relationship, and happier days ahead. She did mention a ring in "Tears of Joy" so I can only assume she's engaged or at the very least, very taken.

The Sweet Old World CD, which followed Lucinda Williams, focused on a world sweet in comparison to bad relationships ("Lines Around Your Eyes") and a family suicide ("Pineola"). This was a stunning follow up to Lucinda Williams and deserved far greater acclaim than she received. Her next album, released six years later, would change everything. The public would know all about Lu with the release of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1998 (titled Car Tires on a Dirt Road before being finalized). We could all kiss the intimate club dates goodbye after the album went gold.

Mary Chapin Carpenter (whose sister, McKenzie Carpenter, writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) recorded "Passionate Kisses" from Lucinda Williams and earned them both a Grammy. I much prefer Lu's original version with her raw nasal-sounding inflections and tell-tale Texas drawl although last night's performance of the song was far too rushed -- she furiously sang and played it at nearly double the original tempo (a disappointment). Lu earned a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road) and another for Best Female Rock Performance ("Get Right with God" from Essence released in 2001).

Lucinda went on to release World Without Tears in 2003 that contained some really stellar reflections about life on the road and broken relationships. Stand outs included "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings," "Those Three Days," and "Sweet Side." Live @ The Fillmore, her most recent CD, is laid back and lacking in her typical audience banter. It was recorded during two nights and spliced together. She also has a DVD out titled Live from Austin Texas, which I haven't seen. There are more than a few bootlegs floating around; one featuring her four-hour tour closer in Baltimore, Maryland. I'd love to hear that one.

Lu did not mention her native city Lake Charles, Louisiana, last night. Maybe it's too painful to talk about. Still, I was surprised she never once talked about Hurricane Katrina.

Lucinda Williams will continue to be a dynamic, down-to-earth, singer with enough edgy blues riffs to fill concert halls in the years to come. Something tells me, she'll mature into an even more eloquent lyricist given time and some reflection on what her life has given her. Her web site is so-so and she commands $25 to join her fan club (I hope that isn't a trend). If you want to listen to Lucinda, check her site out or go to Amazon and load up on her "sweet sweet ba-beeeee" drawls. If you venture out to her show, let me know what you thought and pay attention to the two-inch thick book of songs she thumbs through on stage. AMAZING catalogue!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Kathleen Edwards -- Back to Me

Kathleen Edwards' second CD "Back to Me" came out in March 2005. I had the chance to see her in Pittsburgh a few months later. At the time, I didn't own any of her CD's but enjoyed the songs WYEP 91.3 played from "Failer," her first CD.

Some of the Ottawa native's songs come off as "in your face, I am woman" statements but this wouldn't appear to be an entirely accurate depiction for this emotional tour through her travels, loves, and hurts. She achieved notoriety playing the late night television circuit in a whirlwind debut that included raves from Rolling Stone. She is currently touring the U.S. with east coast dates in the coming months. She pulls into Pittsburgh for two dates at Club Cafe in April.

During her May 2005 appearance in Pittsburgh, her voice wavered and halted during the second half of the show until she finally burst into tears during a solo encore of "Away." She fought back the tears, started again, and then succumbed to an all out on stage cry that left most of the audience bewildered. There was a long pause as she collected herself, faltered, and then found enough presence to explain that sometimes "you just lose it. This has never happened to me."

We all stood there, a few feet away from the distraught Edwards, unable to do anything to ease her pain. Someone in the crowd shouted "We love you, Kathleen" which seemed to diminish some of the awkwardness. It was a strange moment for everyone involved with an undercurrent of "you can do this" empowerment gushing toward the crumpled Edwards.

She tried the song again through tearful sniffles and muffled lyrics to finally finish. You could have heard a pin drop as she struggled through the song. The crowd roared loving approval as the final note hung over us.

Mary Gauthier opened for Kathleen that night so the audience was already in a heady mood. I left the show with such a mix of feelings that it was hard to pinpoint my feelings about her as an artist. I had just witnessed a human being fall apart on stage to a sold out audience -- she was more than just Kathleen Edwards, the musician, after that.

Her band, including her husband guitarist Colin Cripps, rocks on songs like "Back to Me" and "In State." Kathleen's voice is high and wavering during the more emotional cuts like "Away" and "Hockey Skates." I've seen some comparisons to Lucinda Williams but I wouldn't say her voice or her style is that pronounced at this point in her career. Perhaps earlier Lucinda, yes. I'd compare her more to Beth Orton's ethereal sound on "Trailer Park" and "Central Reservation." (Beth has a new CD "Comfort of Strangers" and is currently touring the U.K. and Ireland with 20 U.S. dates to follow. The new CD song samples included on her web site are intriguing.)

Kathleen Edwards' web site features tour dates and song samples. She's a bourbon drinker, straight up, if you get the chance to see her this spring.