Shawn Colvin / Patty Griffin / Freedy Johnson – Roseland Theater (Portland, OR)
It struck me during this fine three and a half hours of music by three compatible folk-rock artists how the connection between musician and audience can be made in very distinct manners. Shawn Colvin won the crowd over with her charm and beautiful singing. Freedy Johnston connected with his songs, which are among the most intelligent work in popular music. And I immediately sat up and paid rapt attention to newcomer Patty Griffin’s emotional power and pure voice.
My pre-show anticipation focused on Johnston. While this wasn’t a stellar performance, it was good to hear live renditions from Freedy’s terrific new release, Never Home. His band was a bit sluggish, perhaps in part because of how cold it apparently was onstage (all three artists complained about it, and Colvin donned a huge wool sweater when she came out to sing with Johnston).
But Johnston still connected through the delicacy of his remarkably thoughtful work. The highlight was “Western Sky”, a song from the new album about the son of an airplane pilot who refuses to fly after his father dies in a crash. So he makes a “lonely trip out west” by car to meet his wife, who flies overhead. She worries about him alone on the road (“Now you be careful love/The road can hypnotize/And exit in the rain/She answered before it rang”). Struggling with grief and longing for connection, the couple reach out to each other on their separate yet anxiously intertwined journeys. All this came through in Johnston’s impassioned delivery of the song, especially the closing line : “I need those words you say/Before you say good-bye.” As he repeated the last line stronger and louder, he managed to touch that dark place where we fear the loss of those closest to us. Johnston slaves over each word, each nuance, and if you are willing to work just a little to get past his limited voice, there’s a big payoff from the stunning compositions of this songwriter’s songwriter.
The bittersweet reading of “Western Sky” seemed to inspire the band, which found its legs with “On the Way Out”, a stellar rocker that accomplishes the rare feat for the commercially struggling artist on the way up — it is easily Johnston’s most accessible song to date, but also a fine one that will please his devoted following. Unfortunately, it was also the final number of the set, leaving the faithful eager for Johnston’s return to town for a set of 90 minutes instead of 40.
In contrast, headliner Colvin and her first-rate five-piece band made it all look easy. Colvin glided effortlessly across the stage, looked fabulous, and regaled the adoring audience with witty stories about Lyle Lovett, her Midwestern upbringing and the time she chose to disclose to a Wichita audience that she had never seen their city before writing “Wichita Skyline”.
While a bit vanilla for my tastes, Colvin connected with her voice, which is irresistible. She sounded equally impressive belting out the defiant “Get Out Of This House” and whispering the gentle lyrics of “Trouble”. Colvin played most of the songs from her latest release, A Few Small Repairs, and without exception, her singing was every bit as varied and perfect as in the studio.
As on prior tours, Colvin proved particularly effective at interpreting others’ work. Two of the best moments of the set were tender covers of The Beatles’ “If You Go” and Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”.
Guitarist Steuart Smith contributed tastefully throughout the evening, ranging from nice slide work to twangy spaghetti-western leads, never overdoing it but consistently being imaginative. While I’d rather the band had really cut loose one in awhile, they played well and with unusual subtlety. Whatever Colvin might lack by way of an edge, she makes up for with her pleasing voice and manner.
The most intense set of the evening came from opener Patty Griffin. Solo and armed only with an acoustic guitar, Griffin wowed the crowd with her big voice and compelling songs. Performing numbers from her debut Living With Ghosts, Griffin easily overcame the difficulty of being the unknown first act on a three-act bill in a harsh venue. Her emotional power and pure singing came together especially well on “Sweet Lorraine”. I was completely unfamiliar with Griffin but was immediately won over with her beautiful gift of a voice. And, in contrast to Colvin’s Midwestern wholesomeness, Griffin cuts with a sharp knife. I wouldn’t be surprised if her connection to the Midwest is a well-worn Husker Du record or two. And that hits home with this Midwestern expatriate.