Sunday, April 7, 2019
The Music Hall, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
I’ve been listening to Patty Griffin since my senior year of high school, so for over 20 years now. I have always liked knowing that she grew up two towns over from me. It made me feel like anything was possible for a kid from a small town in Maine. Her songs, full of heart, are among my all-time favorites. If I absolutely had to narrow down my favorite songs from her long career, I would still have to pick six–“Rain,” “Nobody’s Crying,” “When It Don’t Come Easy,” “Top Of The World,” “Let Him Fly,” and “Burgundy Shoes.” Patty’s songs have been recorded by so many talented musicians who’ve helped share her music in the world. Patty is pretty epic. Somehow, I’ve only managed to see her twice, in 2002 and 2007. I was thrilled when I saw she was going on tour with Ruston Kelly. I saw his incredibly talented wife, Kacey Musgraves, back in January. I eagerly snagged a solo seat in the third row at The Music Hall in Portsmouth when tickets went on sale, and I made my way south on a sunny Sunday afternoon to see the show. I was pumped to run into my friend and fellow music enthusiast Aimsel Ponti and her friend Kathryn, who had incredible front row center seats for the show.
For me, Ruston Kelly stole the show and my music-loving heart. His set was full of sincerity, heart, and power. His voice is compelling and his songs are honest and self-aware. He shared the stage with his dad, TK Kelly, on pedal steel guitar. Ruston introduced his dad–“not only is he a fantastic dresser, but he happens to be my biological father. We found out on Maury. He’s the strong, silent type.” Something that crept up early in the night was a little bit of sarcasm from the audience that I found annoying and I think Ruston did, too. A few people interjected during his banter–one to give him a hard time about tuning his guitar. He responded, “I’m tuning my guitar so I can play better.” He mentioned the comments later in his set. He said, “that’s the stuff you remember later.” I don’t think he meant it as a compliment.
Ruston told us early in his set that “I feel like it will give some context that in that at this period in my artwork, I had to dig myself out of a pretty low hole dealing with substance abuse and I’m happy to say that I’m on solid ground these days. There’s a silver lining to most of it, but the songs are still pretty sad.” I was surprised to hear him introduce “Mockingbird” by saying “I wrote this song standing next to a dumpster.” His song “Alive” gave me chills. I’m already looking forward to seeing Ruston again live. He is the real deal. I was excited when one of the guys on the tour crew handed me his setlist during intermission, too.
I can’t believe I hadn’t seen Patty Griffin live in 12 years, and I was sad to hear how much thinner her voice sounds in person these days. If I’m being totally honest, I didn’t love this live show. I appreciated learning about some of the songs on her new album, Patty Griffin, though. Patty told us that “Boys from Tralee” is about a couple of boys getting out of Ireland during the Famine. She said her grandparents came to America couple of generations after the Famine, because Ireland was still pretty devastated. She told us that, “one of the reasons I’m alive is because the gates were open. I think about that a lot lately.”
Patty told us that “Hourglass” was inspired by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and she encouraged us to check him out on YouTube. More of the songs on her new album were inspired by other musicians, too. Patty was in Europe when she had a vivid dream about Billie Holliday. She explained, “I’d never immersed myself in her music before because her voice is awfully sad and I didn’t think I could handle it. In this dream, she was young and was smiling and was singing this beautiful song in a barn to a bunch of people. I woke up out of this dream and started listening to her consistently. I’ve learned from her that singers can sometimes never waste a note. She meant every single note she used. I learned what a huge supreme gift it is to have a voice that sad because when you need to feel sad she carries you there with her and that’s a gift to the world. I thought about what made her sad. She was born a Black woman in America in the era she was born into. I heard there were many difficult moments in her life and as a child her mother was not able to be in her life. This sadness in her voice is where people go to cry their tears and it inspired ‘Had a Good Reason.’”
Photo courtesy of Aimsel Ponti
Patty didn’t play many older songs, which I was disappointed about, too, so I was especially glad to hear “Long Ride Home” in person. Patty honored her mother when she introduced “Bluebeard.” She told us her mom was an English teacher and they went to the library every week. “Bluebeard” is a murder ballad that retells the story she read as a kid. She said, “sometimes there are things in life that you don’t want to know but then they become obvious and you can’t unknow them so you have to do something about them.”
Patty told us that she wrote “Where I Come From” about Old Town, Maine. She was driving her mom around town (she still lives there) looking for a store that has long disappeared and “thought about how different the town is now. When I was born there were 5 or 6 factories–they made shoes, paper, and canoes–and now they’re down to just one canoe factory. I thought about how there’s no plan B and that is the case all over America. There are all these little towns that need a little love.”
I really love Patty’s new single, “River.” The lyrics are powerful (like Patty’s always are): “Isn’t she a river? / She doesn’t need a diamond to shine / You can’t really have her / But you can hold her for a time / Takes an army just to bend her.” I was over the moon to hear one of my favorite Patty Griffin songs, “When It Don’t Come Easy,” in person. I’ll take a sappy lyric anytime, like “if you break down / I’ll drive out and find you / If you forget my love / I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don’t come easy.” Patty sincerely thanked her band, Ruston Kelly, the folks at The Music Hall, and all of us for coming before wrapping her set with “Shine a Different Way.” She came back to the stage solo and sang “Heavenly Day” for us, which was enthusiastically received by a much warmer audience. It was not my favorite Patty Griffin show to date, but I am forever grateful to her for decades of songs that make me feel all the feelings.