Patty Griffin was apologetic to the packed house in the stately hall. A few decades or so ago, she waited tables at the nearby Pizzeria Uno and told the crowd that she gave up the job because she grew too ornery on the job.
Times (and location) have changed for Griffin and company, and no apology was required on this night. Griffin is doing things differently this tour around with sidekicks Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek fame and Anais Mitchell sharing the stage equally with her.
The show was, in effect, an organized guitar pull. The three were onstage for the entire 90 minutes, accompanied only by ace guitarist David Pulkingham. Griffin, Watkins and Mitchell, in turn, would sing a song, offering backing vocals and instrumentation to the others when it was their turn. (Interestingly, Watkins found herself behind a drum kit for the opening song of the night, "There Isn't One Way," from Griffin, not her usual instrument, but that's the way it went on this night as each would have a turn on drums, more like tom toms). The backing from the other two helped to flesh out the material and give a vibrancy that singing solo would not have afforded each on their own.
This is a tour with no set list. Yes, some songs may be repeated night to night, but there was a free-flowing feel to the show, which Watkins particularly helped to underscore as she played the role of somewhat awkward Artist with somewhat goofy stage banter and all to good effect.
The three mainstays were musically singular enough to carve out their own musical niches. Griffin, who clearly had the most star power of the three and the biggest voice (Watkins and Mitchell certainly were no slouches vocally), tended to mine a more bluesy/soulful vibe on this evening, dipping into gospel as well with "Waiting for My Child to Come Home," which she learned from Mavis Staples.
But her compadres were more than up to the task. Watkins has a pretty sounding voice with inflection and dynamism ("You and Me"). While Nickel Creek's her main gig, she has enjoyed her own solo career and with a voice like hers, it's understandable why.
Mitchell was the most straightforward folk singer of the night with her own brand of tender material. She may not have the name power of Griffin and Watkins, but she was not the third wheel either with ample confidence in her vocals and stage presence. Her last song, the haunting "Why We Build the Wall," may have been the meatiest of the night of any of the performers.
Pulkingham set the right tones throughout, whether steely in the Buddy Miller School of Guitar or softer acoustic runs.
About the only negative was the inherent nature of the show. In-the-round concerts mean that the chances to create momentum are out the window when it's next woman up. But in the hands of Griffin, Watkins and Mitchell, they carried the night just fine. No apology needed.