“That’s what happens when you go to a folk concert, Mom,” I responded.
We were at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton, TX, a place I had never been and a place my mom probably never wanted to go. But Vicky, my wife, couldn’t make it to this concert, so my mom was kind enough to join me. Dan’s wasn’t particularly seedy, but it wasn’t a concert hall either. It was the kind of venue you’d expect to find near the square of a music town like Denton: brightly colored walls filled with images of dead or old musicians, dimly lit in all the right places (i.e. the stage, the bar, along the wall where the bathrooms were- this last one was CRUCIAL). The only thing missing was the smell of pot.
The woman that was playing when my mom made that comment about the music’s gloominess level wasn’t Patty Griffin; it was a short chanteuse named Anaïs Mitchell. I’d only heard one of her albums, Young Man in America, highly recommended by yours truly. Her music was admittedly depressing, but it lived up to that album. Her voice was beautiful, with an otherworldly quality I was used to from the album but wasn’t sure would translate to the live experience. It did, and watching her live provided me the opportunity to hear her lyrics better and enjoy the meticulous nature of the stories she tells in her songs. Mitchell played the great “Young Man in America”, and she introduced me to a few songs from her folk-rock opera Hadestown and the gorgeous “Orion”, a lament for a musician she knew in Austin who died too young. In a time when artists are coming around to folk-sounding music as a viable option because it’s a viable option, it was refreshing to hear a musician who had been around before the Americana boom and is still creating personal music in the genre.
After Mitchell, Patty Griffin came out on the stage in a dress that resembled a disco ball; she looked like a jazz star from long ago- or at least what I imagine they looked like. Griffin came of age performing in Boston coffee houses, so a small venue like Dan’s was somewhat of a return to her roots. She probably could have filled the seats in a much bigger room, but we were all content to stand in a tiny, crowded area to hear her sing. Recordings don’t do the great ones justice, but I never could have expected this live experience to be as moving as it was.
The first thing I noticed was her sense of humor. Listening to her records, that aspect of Griffin never comes out. She writes serious (depressing) music, but as she cracked jokes about a vasectomy doctor in Austin named Richard Chop or told us stories of her grandparents’ paradoxical personalities, she exuded a joy you hear only hints of through headphones. “Get Ready Marie” is the obviously funny track about her grandfather’s preconceived notions about his wedding night, but hearing “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” live enabled me to hear the laugh in Griffin’s voice as she voiced her father’s desire to not waste the end of his life.
The set wasn’t long enough. She didn’t play three of my favorite songs: “Heavenly Day”, “Long Ride Home”, and “Rain”. But that didn’t keep it from being a perfect concert. Among the many beautiful, more ordinary moments were two transcendent, extraordinary ones. One came when she played perhaps her most famous song, “Top of the World”, covered by the Dixie Chicks on their hit album Home. When the Chicks sing it, it’s poignant enough, but when Patty Griffin sings it, it takes you to its title. Griffin has a knack for reaching into souls and reminding us what we have in common with each other; in this case, she reminded me that everyone has dreams and regrets, even people who are cruel to others. The other transcendent moment was during recent album cut “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”, written for Griffin’s father, who recently passed away. It’s a celebration of heaven, where he won’t “ever have to go to war no more”, or “pay the bills”, or “break a sweat or walk a worried floor”. She makes heaven sound perfect, like the rest I pray all my late loved ones are receiving.
Patty Griffin is from Maine, and Anaïs Mitchell is from Vermont, and I drove from Norman, Oklahoma to watch them both play in Denton, Texas. It struck me how weird that was, though it’s normal now; but it’s weird that it’s normal. Local music used to signify something about the area’s identity, but it doesn’t hold the same import anymore; now we import our music from all over the world. Griffin played a song from her newest album written by Lefty Frizzell, a classic country artist from the north Texas area, maybe to endear herself to the local crowd, but she didn’t have to. The way the music was moving the crowd, it all felt like local music. It felt like our music.