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Preview Wed Jan 29 2014
On many occasions, my friends have suffered my unrelenting droning on about whatever musical obsession I'd most recently happened upon. I don't really feel like my yammering was evangelical in intent; I was merely trying to summon the words that could explain the new feelings that had been exposed by these artists and their songs. Of course, I later realized that I could simply write these feelings down and spare my friends the trouble. I dwell on this now because I'm worried that, at times, I may have spoken too much and too long about Patty Griffin, to the degree that the mere mention of her name would be a disincentive for them to explore further. The phrases "criminally underrated", "best modern songwriter", and "greatest of all time" may have made an appearance (or several) in my testimonies. I hope my hyperbole didn't turn them off, for no one should be dissuaded from unearthing one of the great song catalogs in American music.
This form of zeal isn't surprising, for Griffin writes small songs about big feelings, and she's been known to inspire such feelings in her fans. Griffin's first record, 1996's Living With Ghosts, was actually a demo tape she'd sent to A&M Records, her first label; they saw no way to improve upon her own work. This is the kind of passion that Griffin generates in her fans, whether they are newcomers to the flock or long-standing devotees. In a recent article, Griffin recalled when A&M was folded into Interscope Records, and she was subsequently dropped her from that label in 2000 after delivering her third album Silver Bell (it went unreleased until this past year, and she is touring behind that album and American Kid, a collection of new songs). She particularly remembers her meeting with Jimmy Iovine, a co-founder of Interscope and music mogul extraordinaire, who told her that "she had never made a great record", and that she was to be released from her contract. My immediate thought was that Jimmy Iovine was an idiot who didn't know a thing about music. Granted, this is the Iovine who had been essential in Bruce Springsteen's early career, and who had produced such stars as Patti Smith and U2. He clearly has the bona fides, but what the hell did he know, I'd decided; he actually thought Patty Griffin hadn't made a great record! Such is the nature of that kind of fervent fandom, I suppose.
There was a popular bit that Louis C.K. recently did on Conan. When talking about the drawbacks of a world increasingly glued to their IPhones, he noted that, although we often take to our phones to counter feelings of loneliness, we are actually "lucky to live sad moments." He continued, remarking that deep sadness is often met by a profound happiness that is conjured in contrast to the despondency we might feel. I bring it up because it reminded me of the conundrum Griffin's music presents; how could listening to such sad songs feel so joyous? To call her music 'heartbreaking' sells it short; the word is too clichéd and belies the intricacies that Griffin works with, and there are few that can evoke the bewildering complexities of sadness as accurately and concisely as she can. The moments she details may be sad, but you feel lucky to be living (and hearing) them.
Patty's music has been sultry, comforting, vengeful, wistful and fiercely triumphant, often within the same song, but she's never struck me as a performer who could be easily ignored. The oft-hushed volume of her work should not fool listeners; she's not made for the background, not an artist to clean the house to. Watching her perform live parallels the surprise that accompanies hearing her music for the first time - she seems to demur from the spotlight, but when she seizes it she can unearth songs that have an emotional heft the size and weight of mountains.
Patty Griffin plays Metro (3730 N Clark St.) this Friday, January 31. The show is sold out, but I'm hoping with everyone else that there are some last-minute openings. Information for the show can be found here.