Every song in Nanci Griffith’s show is accompanied by a story, usually a yarn that fleshes out the reality of her sagas set to rhyme and meter. It brings a special depth to her 100 minutes onstage, making the country folkie’s latest collection of tunes feel familiar and comforting; those two factors have been crucial in cementing Griffith’s bond with her hardcore aud for more than 20 years.
She is political, familial and down-home, an Austin-ite reared from birth as a Bohemian who seemingly touches on every aspect of her life during the show. In her new material, Griffith sings about living as simply as her mother, traveling in peace in Vietnam, revisiting her stepfather’s jazz experiences, and the power of love. And in each case, the songs are weighted toward the narrative and away from the emotional — a dramatic change from her shooting-from-the-heart work that defined her in the 1980s.
Her redefinition of “personal” to mean observational is obvious and healthy; that emotional well dried up on her once before and her experiences make for substantive songs. Griffith balanced her new work with the oldies, reaching back to her brushes with hit records and gently performing “From a Distance” and “Love at the Five & Dime.”
Griffith is a sharp storyteller whose tales about the value of stepfathers and hope for a world free of land mines were listened to intensely; she made the hall laugh while praising the film “Sideways” for exposing the issue of “drinking and dialing” and when confessing an obsession with soap operas.
Were the anecdotes removed, though, the evening would have had a yawn-inducing flatness. Her Blue Moon Orchestra provides tight backup but they keep things economical and nonthreatening, dampening some of the liveliness found on Griffith’s latest disc, “Hearts in Mind” (New Door/Universal). This is sedate, folk-twinged country music that allows the lyrics to sit front and center. Guitarist Clive Gregson, formerly with Richard Thompson, should be given more room to show off his venerated fretwork.
Griffith was dead-on correct in praising her opening act Mary Gauthier (pronounced go-Shay) for John Prine-like songwriting talent –Gauthier loves couplets and oddball rhymes. Her most Prine-like number, “Camelot Motel,” with its collection of “cheaters, liars, outlaws and fallen angels,” was bruisingly effective in her short perf. “The Wheel Inside the Wheel,” from her stellar major label debut, “Mercy Now” (Lost Highway/Universal), is a raw and invigorating treatise on death.