Archive for the ‘Nanci Griffith’ Category

Years long ago, on the early evening of Saturday Sept. 6, 1997, Diane and I saddled up our faithful Dodge Colt and traipsed the trails fantastic to the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., to see Nanci Griffith at what must have been the apex of her touring career. And eight days later, we set out on a longer sojourn, this time to the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Del., to see her again. Supporting and joining her on both occasions: the Crickets (aka, Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison and Joe Maudlin).

The Tower fits a little more than 3000; and the Opera House a bit more than 1200. I’m not sure, now, if one or both were sold out, but given her popularity at the time, I’d guess that, if they weren’t, they were close. She’d been on something of a commercial roll since her major-label debut in 1987, Lone Star State of Mind, with each new release expanding her audience while simultaneously expanding her sound. She didn’t approach her music as a lather-rinse-repeat exercise, in which every new release sounded like the old, but as a mode for artistic expression and exploration. Pop sensibilities surfaced on the classic Storms (1989) and less-classic Late Night Grand Hotel (1991), for example, but receded for her 1993 collection of covers, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and what may well be her finest album ever, 1994’s Flyer, which were both folk- and folkabilly-minded affairs.

Blue Roses From the Moons, released in March 1997, was both solid and sad, however. Primarily recorded live in the studio with her longtime band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, and the Crickets, it veers from the sublime (“Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses”) to the ridiculous (a cover of Nick Lowe’s “I Live on a Battlefield”) and back again, and revisits old themes (“Saint Teresa of Avila”) and even old songs (“Gulf Coast Highway,” this time with Darius Rucker subbing for James Hooker). And, truthfully, her voice often sounds shot.

To the shows: The Crickets didn’t open. Instead, Nanci and the Blue Moon Orchestra came out first and played for 40 (give or take) minutes, with the Crickets joining Nanci for the Sonny Curtis-penned theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Love Is All Around.” With the baton thus handed off, the Crickets then played for about half an hour, with their set including – as one would expect – a few Buddy Holly chestnuts. Nanci and the Blue Moon Orchestra then closed out the night.

My memory of the Tower show is near non-existent despite the ticket showing us as having very good seats, while my recall of the Wilmington show is slightly better, though I don’t remember meeting members of the Crickets afterwards, which Diane says we did. That said, I do remember leaving both thinking that the concerts were solid, but not sublime, with my favorite moment of each being…the MTM theme, plus the older material, especially “Trouble in the Fields” and “The Wing & the Wheel.”

The Crickets were fun, and Nanci and the band were in good form – but placing ‘50s-styled rock ’n’ roll in the middle of Nanci’s country-folk stylings didn’t quite jell the way one might think it would or should.

That said, one of the encores, “Well, All Right” (from the Not Fade Away Buddy Holly tribute CD released in 1996) was a delight.

This was the set list from Denver a few months later: 

Speed of the Sound of Loneliness
Across the Great Divide
Two for the Road
These Days in an Open Book
Love at the Five and Dime
Ford Econoline
Gulf Coast Highway
Love is All Around
Do You Wanna Be Loved
I Fought the Law

Oh Boy
Lover You More than I Can Say
Maybe Baby
Everyday
Summertime Blues
I Gotta Pass
The Real Buddy Holly Story
True Love Ways
Peggy Sue
That’ll Be the Day
Rave On

Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses
The Flyer
Tecumseh Valley
She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Boots of Spanish Leather
It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go
I’ll Still Be Someone
Walk Right Back
Not My Way Home
This Heart

Encore:

Well Alright
Trouble in the Fields
The Wing & the Wheel
Darcy Farrow

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Oct. 25, 1989: Rows of folding metal chairs lined the floor of the Chestnut Cabaret this Wednesday night, a fair autumn evening if ever there was one – after a high of 77, temperatures plummeted into the 40s overnight. Two weeks before, we’d caught Lenny Kravitz’s Philadelphia debut at this same West Philly club; and a week later we’d see Syd Straw (with Dave Alvin on guitar) open for Camper Van Beethoven there, too. For those concerts, we were situated on one of the raised sides, where tables and spotty service could sometimes be had. Tonight, however, we were down in the valley (so to speak) – and in the front row.

The headliner: Texas-bred singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith.

James McMurtry, then known primarily as the son of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry, opened with a solid set drawn from his stellar debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, which was one of my favorite albums that year. He was backed by a crack band; I remember the drummer pounded those skins like his life depended on it.

nanci_stormsAt the time, Nanci Griffith was riding high – and winning a smattering of new fans – thanks to her sublime Storms album, which embraced a slightly sleeker pop sound than her previous country-folk works. Produced by Glyn Johns, it featured guest turns from Phil Everly, Bernie Leadon and Albert Lee and such songs as “Listen to the Radio,” “If Wishes Were Changes,” “Drive-In Movies and Dashboard Lights,” the title track and “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go.” To my ears (then and now), Storms is a stone-cold classic.

Although I already liked her music, I’d never seen her live, so I was psyched; and her 90-minute set didn’t disappoint. I believe she opened with the charming “Love at the Five and Dime,” complete with the sweet story that leads into it…

…but I could be wrong. The night’s songs are something of a jumble. I remember she played a wondrous rendition of “If Wishes Were Changes,” one of my favorite songs by her…

…and “There’s a Light Beyond These Words (Mary Margaret).”

“Listen to the Radio,” complete with a wonderful run on the keys by James Hooker, was another highlight.

And, of course, “It’s a Hard Life,” a song I’ve probably heard her sing dozens of times in the years since.

Okay, so dozens is a tad hyperbolic, but in the decades since that autumn evening, Diane and I have seen Nanci more times than either of us can count – basically, whenever she’s played the Philadelphia area. We’ve seen her at the Chestnut Cabaret, Penn’s Landing, TLA, Keswick, Tower Theater, World Cafe Live, even the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Del., where she was accompanied by the Crickets (as in, Buddy Holly’s Crickets).

dodgecolt002Twenty-five years ago today as I write, on Wednesday Sept. 25, 1991, Diane and I were brand-new to married life, having gotten hitched the previous Friday in Philly’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. It was, suffice it to say, a great day – up until we walked out of the French restaurant where we held the wedding: my brother and a friend had decked out my car, a Dodge Colt, in festive wedding gear, and tied empty cans to the back. That centuries-old tradition sounds charming, I suppose, but try driving with said cans clanging on Chestnut Hill’s cobblestone streets… as Bill the Cat might say, “Ack!” At the first opportunity, I cut ’em loose. Anyway, we waited until the following spring for our actual honeymoon, a wondrous California odyssey, and spent the weekend down the shore. We already lived together, so the adjustment was minimal – changing our W-4s was it, I think.

Here’s our living room from January 1991:

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Yes, that’s a lot of CDs; and the number only increased, as they spawned often. By decade’s end, they took over that end of the living room.

smokey_ogc001Although I don’t remember the specifics of this particular Wednesday, I can still lay out a large chunk of what happened based on routine: I woke around 6:30, left at 7:35am, arrived at work 10-15 minutes later, and then sat at a desk for a spell. Those were the days of hour-long paid lunches (what a concept!), and I made use of the time by heading home most middays. Without morning traffic, it took 10 minutes each way. I brought in the mail, likely indulged the original old grey cat, Smokey, with a few treats, and worked on the Great American Novel, which I spent much of the ‘90s writing, re-writing and never completing.

That’s to say, in addition to a cat, we had a computer – a second-hand x286 IBM clone. It came with an eight-gig hard drive, 256MBs of memory and a modem, which meant we could, and did, connect to the sandboxed universe of Prodigy. My dad, God bless him, dumbed down the DOS operating system for us and installed a simple menu, so accessing a program was never more than one or two keystrokes away – as in, A, B, C, D or E. For me, at lunchtime, that meant firing up the word processor and tap-tap-tapping away.

The top movie of 1991 was The Silence of the Lambs, which Diane and I saw while down the shore for a week in the spring. (We read the book and Red Dragon, the novel that preceded it, in the same week. Yes, we were eyeing everyone with suspicion.) Other popular films included Beauty and the Beast, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Point Break and Hook, none of which interested me then or now; and Thelma & Louise.

On the economic front, America was teetering: unemployment averaged 6.8 percent for the year and inflation, at 4.2 percent, was a source of concern as January dawned, though it (thankfully) fell over the next 12 months. Still, there was reason to rejoice: the USSR officially disbanded on December 26th and, with it, the Cold War came to an end – at least, it came to an end for a time. We’ve recently seen the rich man’s Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, upping Russia’s nationalistic ante as a way to distract everyday Russians from their own economic woes; and those dupes who’d play cards with him, such as Donald Trump, apparently have no clue that he’s dealing from a stacked deck.

Back on point: In the music-history books, 1991 is heralded for the breakthrough of the paradigm-shifting Nirvana, whose influential Nevermind was released 25 years ago yesterday. I’d love to say that I was among the first to buy it and take the music to heart. I wasn’t. I was in a different mind-space, as my list below shows. That’s not to say I didn’t and don’t appreciate the immediate impact and lingering influence of Nevermind; if I was creating an objective list for the year, I’d rank it No. 1. I’m not, however, so I won’t.

Before I get to the list: My main music-related memory from 1991 isn’t of an album, but of two sterling shows that we saw in the span of a few weeks, both at the TLA in Philly: Rosanne Cash on her Interiors tour; and the Irish singer Mary Black on her Babes in the Woods tour. Rosie’s was, as Dan DeLuca phrases it in his review, “an ‘I can’t remember the last time I saw anything this good’ show’; and Mary Black’s was as magical. (I reference it in this Of Concerts Past post about her 1994 show at the Chestnut Cabaret.) Other shows we saw in 1991: Elvis Costello with the Replacements; Emmylou Harris with Chet Atkins; Kathy Mattea with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; Roger McGuinn; Bonnie Raitt with Chris Isaak; and K.T. Oslin with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman’s group, the Desert Rose Band. There were plenty of others.

For today’s Top 5: 1991.

1) Mary Black – Babes in the Wood. Selected track: “Still Believing.” I mentioned that memorable show of hers above because, looking back, I’m sure that live experience played a major part in my picking this as my favorite of the year. To this day, whenever I play the CD – or, now, stream it – I’m transported to the TLA, seated about halfway back, with Diane by my side.

2) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Weld. Selected track: “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Now, this is my idea of grunge. Neil Young returned from the wilderness in 1989 with the stellar Freedom; followed it the next year with the raucous, Crazy Horse-infused Ragged Glory; and put a cap on his comeback with the electric tour captured on Weld, which could well be summed up in two words: brutal grace.

3) Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend. Selected track: “Divine Intervention.” One of my most-played albums of ’91, which is saying something as it was released in October of that year. This track, like the album as a whole, is delightfully trippy – and very Beatlesque.

4) John Mellencamp – Whenever We Wanted. Selected track: “Whenever We Wanted.” This, Mellencamp’s first release of the ‘90s, bypasses much of his late ‘80s Americana stylings in favor of the crunchy rock of Uh-Huh; and often substitutes sloganeering for the incisive short stories that accent Scarecrow, Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy. That said, a handful of songs – including this cut – stand with his greatest work.

5) Soundtrack – Falling From Grace. Selected track: Nanci Griffith’s “Cradle of the Interstate.” So John Mellencamp made a movie. I have no idea if it was good, bad or mediocre, as I’ve never seen it., but I can say without equivocation that the soundtrack – which preceded the film by a few months – was uniformly excellent, featuring tunes from Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, Larry Crane, Lisa Germano and Nanci Griffith.

And a few bonuses:

6) Nanci Griffith – Late Night Grande Hotel. Selected track: “It’s Just Another Morning Here.” A solid, if slightly overproduced, outing from the folkabilly singer-songwriter, who was one of our favorites. The songs played better live, as recall. I do wonder what’s become of her…

7) Lisa Germano – On the Way Down From Moon Palace. Selected track: “Riding My Bike.” Germano, of course, came to the fore as the fiddler in Mellencamp’s band – and is a phenomenal fiddler. This jazzy solo effort is likely not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy it.

8) Blake Babies – Rosy Jack World. Selected track: “Temptation Eyes,” Juliana. John. Freda. What else need be be said?