Patty Griffin stood on the stage of Town Hall and pondered its history -- from Billie Holiday and Nina Simone to young Bob Dylan -- and said she felt like she needed to apologize for any flat notes.
Then she shook it off and declared, “I’m just going to play you some folk music.”
Of course, that’s a kind of understatement on par with “The Beatles play pop songs” or “Mark Zuckerberg has a few bucks,” but it was true nonetheless, taking the broadest, and most accurate, definition of folk music possible. For 90 minutes, Griffin wove together a tapestry of American life that just isn’t seen very often, stretching from “Ohio,” which portrays the river as the entrance to the Promised Land for those on the Underground Railroad, to the raucous tale of her Irish immigrant grandparents’ wedding night spawned from the “sexual tension” seen in a photograph from the event. Her covers stretch from gospel singer Dorothy Love Coates’ “The Strange Man” to Mexican composer Ema Elena Valdelamar’s “Mil Besos” to Jimmy Durante’s version of “The Glory of Love,” which she said she listened to so much it felt like a new song.
Griffin’s influences may be eclectic, but they all flow together into a singular sound, marked by her poignant vocals and, on this tour, spare, but well-crafted arrangements.
Her three-piece backing band doesn’t even include a full-time drummer, meaning they all take turns behind the kit. During “Ohio,” Griffin provides the percussion herself, stomping out the rhythm -- and emotional emphasis -- with her high-heeled boots on the stage.
(Her opening act, the folk-blues up-and-comer Parker Millsap, was similarly drummer-free, though rhythm was certainly a big player as he roared through songs from his eponymous debut. Griffin said the 20-year-old Millsap marked the first time she could theoretically be the grandmother of one of her openers, adding, “I feel pretty good about that.”)
Though the bulk of Griffin’s set focused on last year’s underappreciated “American Kid” album, there was some extra fire in the selections from 2002’s “1000 Kisses,” especially the night’s kickoff “Be Careful.”
She unveiled a new, still-untitled song on the mandolin -- an instrument she had never played before she was required to take it on when she joined the Robert Plant-led Band of Joy -- that showed her impressive, unpredictable American folk journey is destined to continue.
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Griffin plays Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn tonight.
SETLIST: Be Careful / Ohio / Don’t Let Me Die in Florida / Faithful Son / Untitled (Mandolin Song) / Top of the World / Coming Home to Me / Long Ride Home / Not Alone / Flaming Red / Standing / The Strange Man / Get Ready Marie / Go Wherever You Wanna Go / Mil Besos // ENCORE: The Glory of Love