Patty Griffin at Headliners, August 11, 1998

By Michael Campbell

A&M recording artist Patty Griffin has learned a lot since opening for Shawn Colvin here in Louisville not so long ago. That night, the flaming redhead with the big voice looked tiny and alone on stage, with a "Gee I'm lucky to be here" persona. Fast forward to a packed house at Headliner's, adoring fans, and a poised, confident Patty Griffin: the slit-skirt center of gravity surrounded by a capable backup band. The concert hall atmosphere of Headliners only enhanced the electricity of anticipation in the house, and the mixing of the sound conveyed the appropriate power without rendering deafness.

Many were enthralled by Patty's first recording, Living With Ghosts, a demo tape featuring only acoustic guitar behind that unmistakable voice that goes from childish whisper to feverish passion within the same phrase. It is a voice that insinuated electric accompaniment as it overpowered the wooden box.

When that accompaniment came to pass with her latest release, Flaming Red, the shift of gears was dramatic. The fact that her voice could easily navigate the dynamics of rock music was no surprise; the reinvention of her style and approach was.

From the outset of her performance, Ms. Griffin avoided the oversinging that has sometimes plagued her performance. She was as capable of providing a calm, centering melody, efficiently propelled by the band's rhythm section as she was capable of stirring the dark, dense rant of "Wiggley Fingers."

The recognition factor kicked in as the third song, "Every Little Bit," began with its signature sweep of the G-position up and down the guitar's neck. Proving that sometimes less is more, the band's participation diluted the haunting edginess of this song, reducing its overall effect. Other songs from the first record were more effective, especially her solo renditions of WFPK staples "Madman Mission," and the poignant, powerful "Poorman's House," which conveys both tragic and dignified aspects of poverty.

The two-guitar lineup supporting Ms. Griffin rocked, but never rolled over the star (maybe that isn't possible with that voice). They preferred support to individual proficiency, never forgetting who the franchise is. Although very skilled, this group never quite seemed to realize the full potential of Ms. Griffin's voice in a band setting. Her satisfying performance did leave one question unanswered: Will she reconcile the musical distance between Living With Ghosts and Flaming Red, or is the pendulum still moving?

Opening act and Louisville favorite danny flannigan battled a noisy crowd with a gritty performance and eventually won both their attention and admiration. His accompanist managed to dodge the usual acoustic guitar cliches through creative use of the slide and volume pedal, skillfully complementing flannigan's wordy, muscular tunes.