Review: Folk-Americana artist Patty Griffin at DC’s Lincoln Theater

Folk/Americana artist Patty Griffin.
Folk/Americana artist Patty Griffin. (Courtesy of the artist)

WASHINGTON, July 16, 2014 – Whether it’s for her audience or for herself, there is absolutely no confusion about what it is that Patty Griffin performs on stage. About three or four songs into her recent set at the Lincoln Theater and after making some brief and rather vague introductions, she flashed a slight smile to the crowd and said, “let’s play some folk music.”

Nothing about Patty Griffin’s show suggests anything different. No sly misdirection, no subversion, no subtle genre mash-ups or crossover here. She is a musician who is complete control of her sound and image, so it’s easy for her to perform her set and be absolutely serious but playful at the same time.

Patty Griffin has been active since around 1992. She’s been doing her Folk/Americana thing for two decades and has always come across like this, although she’s a considerably more confident stage presence now. In fact, it’s hard to remember her otherwise.

Indeed, Griffin’s influence can be felt across country, folk, and Americana. Yet this never quite stops her from performing the way she does, sprinkling in an equal mix of past and present material that encompasses most of her already lengthy career. You can hear echoes of other artists on occasion in her performance. But you have to stop to remember: she’s the one who initially inspired these styles with her own originality.

Unlike other genres of music, the folk genre seems to allow its adherents to grow and develop their musical talent in distinctive directions, due to folk’s urgency and immediacy. In fact, since folk music and musicians strive considerably to capture the passage of time and its general effects on the soul, heart, or mind, it’s actually more suitable for a given artist to possess a good amount of background experience to begin with.

The authenticity this experience entails often enables folk artists to more effectively pull at the audience’s emotional strings than artists can in other genres. That’s not to say that there aren’t younger folk artists who can capture this feeling. But the truly effective ones’ music age gracefully as they mature.

Which gets us back to Patty Griffin. Ever since her recording debut in 1996, she’s generally been a critical darling. But the evolving consensus today is that, as good as she was in the early part of her career, she’s only gotten better with age.

Buttressing this notion, her most critically heralded albums over her lengthy career have actually been numbered among her more recent releases. This was readily apparent during her performance at the Lincoln Theater, which featured a healthy representation of music from her most recent releases.

This “improvement” has little to do with any technical aspects involved with the way Griffin performs. True, she’s increased the use of a backing band as she’s progressed, which has allowed her to more overtly add in elements of Irish folk to her mix, for example. But this hasn’t really changed the way she plays.

Griffin has always been vibrant with her imagery and her voice is as soft and soulful as ever. But there’s an inherent emotional resonance that’s developed over time. When she sings now, it’s in a vaguely soft, weathered tone but without the characteristic rasp that frequently betrays a maturing artist’s age. The poignancy of her songs, regardless of when they were written, also seems stronger and more convincing.

Fortunately, the total joy that’s always been embodied in most of her songs hasn’t faded. It’s that combination of maturity, wisdom and youthful joy that made her show at the Lincoln Theater as enjoyable as it turned out to be. Her show here once again demonstrated the fact that best folk musicians always seem to get better with age.

The way Patty Griffin can combine all the elements in her musical took kit makes hard to imagine that her shows won’t continue to get even better as her career continues.

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