Certain songs just have the power with me, through a very simple and unadorned turn of words, to evoke a perfect whole sadness. I don’t recommend playing this contest at home, but in this ongoing tally-game I have running in my head, one of the very saddest songs I know is “Top of the World” by Patty Griffin. It’s the first song of hers that I ever heard (due to a long-running college flirtation with the Dixie Chicks), and it was a gut-punch from first listen.
I hear it as a story of an emotionally-distant man who is looking back at his life and grieving the ways he hurt those who loved him (“think I broke the wings off that little songbird…”). Something in the line, “I pretend to be sleeping / when you come in in the morning / to whisper goodbye, go to work in the rain, I don’t know why, don’t know why….” makes me live for a solid moment inside that grey early morning light and hear the rain fall on the eaves, and feel like not moving from under the covers, and not knowing why I am avoiding those who love me. Lines like that are part of what make Patty Griffin one of my very favorite songwriters.
This Saturday (December 8), Patty Griffin is headlining Denver’s RootsFest (with support by Todd Snider) to benefit Swallow Hill Music, and Fuel/Friends is thrilled to be one of the presenters! Patty is an incredible, heritage-of-American-music artist, and I cannot wait to see her for a complete live set. Todd Snider opens; I once listened to some of his songs on the long road to Marfa, TX, on the way home from SXSW. Seemed perfect.
WIN TICKETS! I have two pairs of tickets to RootsFest this Saturday give away to readers – please leave me a comment to enter. I am still familiarizing myself with Patty’s vast and wonderful body of work over the years (there is a lot), so feel free to tell me what your favorite song from her is, and why.
I’ll pick winners on Thursday, and encourage everyone else to get their tickets in advance. As part of Swallow Hill’s rad commitment to music education (really, they are doing some of my favorite stuff in Colorado), they are also offering a class on Saturday led by local roots musicians Martin Gilmore and Patrick Dethlefs, focusing on the songwriting aspects of roots music. Each musician will include a performance aspect of their classes, playing songs and then answering questions, and giving explanations of writing techniques, tips and pointers. The workshop is FREE with your ticket to RootsFest.
I’m sitting by my window watching a late summer storm brew and foment. The thunder is rolling in the distance as tree branches thrash around in the wind; all the humidity and grey heaviness of this afternoon is finally ready to break. The line I just sang to myself in the quiet kitchen, without thinking, was “a big old hurricane / she’s blowing our way…” This song keeps following me around (because Patty Griffin pens some of the best songs around, anywhere) to keep reminding me of stubborn lessons.
The version that always gets me is The Local Strangers‘ take on it, and the way that the hurricane of Aubrey Zoli absolutely owns this song, invoking that gospel certainty as she raises her arms and sings the truth. I watched Matt and Aubrey slay this song at silvery sunset on the beach at Doe Bay Fest a few Sundays ago, and it was one of the purest and most stunning moments of the fest for me. For as many times as I hear them perform this song (they often end their shows with it), I always get chills — every time.
We keep waving and waving our arms in the air, but we’re all tired out.
Rather than start this post about the Telluride Bluegrass Festival with a picture of an amazing headliner like Mumford & Sons, or the surprise stellar guests like Patty Griffin, I’m going to share that view up above instead: a cell phone snap taken while I sat inside my tent and looked out the zippered door. I think it captures something about this festival that you need to know, as foundation. As enticement to come next year.
I pitched my tent on slanty ground, deciding to sleep on river rocks just so that I could hear that powerfully rushing roar of water as I was falling asleep at night, and first thing when I woke up in the morning. When I rambled through the darkness at 2am each night to my waiting cocoon of nylon and synthetic down, I’d sit for a good half hour on the banks, just watching the water that came from far away and was heading who-knows-where, as the moon glinted off the fast-moving surface. I felt a deep peace, and a happiness.
After ogling the lineup of performers and arriving into the stunning natural beauty of the town (last year was my virgin year), the first thing you notice about Telluride Bluegrass Festival is that it is inherently different. People at this one are nicer. Strangers stop to both secure your unattended tent when it’s about to succumb to the ferocious winds and blow into the river (happened to me), and also when you are struggling to lug all your stuff out to where the carpool is going to meet (ditto). The staffers might not only watch your gear, but move it under a tarp when the skies open up and the rains begin. The bus driver loops back around once he’s off duty in the wee hours of the morning, because he hears on his radio that a gal needed a ride. Things like this strike me as exceedingly rare in this world of music festivals, and deeply appreciated.
I tell you all these things not to brag about what a goddamn nice weekend I just had, but to set the stage for the sorts of musical chemistry that spark effortlessly and burn glowing-orange within this fertile laboratory of music. All weekend long you’ll see musicians peppering each others’ sets, stepping off the stage to perform in the round, and just smiling a whole lot. Although my friends who bring in the acts have a keen ear for what works (old standards and new exciting acts), I think I would come no matter who was playing.
…So who did play?
These guys: Matthew & The Atlas
Matthew & The Atlas was the best new artist I saw at the festival. I’d written about their song “I Will Remain” many months ago, and listened to it probably a hundred times since then. I have these days where I just park on their MySpace, and blearily stumble out of it three hours (and the same four songs on repeat) later.
Rising out of the same Communion folk scene in London as their peers Mumford and Sons (who attended both Matthew & The Atlas shows I saw), Matt Hegarty’s smoky dark voice is wonderfully evocative, like it knows of sorrows that I haven’t met yet – and I’ve met me a few. It quavers with some echo of ancient wisdom, if that makes sense — like a wizened wizard lives inside this young man. Weird/magic. Plus there are banjo and handclaps and accordion, and prominent female harmonies and countermelodies. I promptly bought all three of the EPs they had for sale after the show. It’s been too long since I’ve let myself do that. Take me back to when the night was young, and another song was sung. I Will Remain – Matthew & The Atlas
Worth waking up for
Two morning sets blew the early-riser Telluride crowd away, and both happen to be two of my personal favorites. The Head and The Heart were the first act I saw at Telluride this year, a fresh and crisp noontime set on Thursday, while Joe Pug played even earlier the next day, while the dew was still on the lawn. There may be nothing nicer in this world than hearing Joe Pug’s harmonica ringing out at 10am on a clean and bracing mountain morning, or watching THATH stomp and laugh and echo those three-part harmonies back off the rocky mountains all around us. Both acts did a fantastic job of converting the audience all around me with their smart songwriting and contagious passion for music. Previously unknown to most of the seasoned bluegrass crowd, I heard both names on everyone’s lips for the duration of the festival.
Hymn #101 – Joe Pug (how do you not have this song yet?! get it)
Looks like he would win a knife fight
This was my first experience seeing Steve Earle live. I deeply respect his music and songwriting, but had never before witnessed his live set. He performed with his wife Allison Moorer (“did I marry out of my league, or what?!” he asked), and I was surprised at the soft incisiveness of his performance. He looks hardened, but life seems to have worn off the painful edges and left this rich and gorgeous beauty in his music. I foresee myself entering a large Steve Earle period.
Amazing ladies unite
And YEAH, I got to see some of the most amazing women in my musical lexicon all in one weekend. I was mesmerized by Emmylou Harris (as I stood next to Marcus Mumford for it, both of us just beaming at her folksinging glory), then Patty Griffin just dropped on in unannounced for the Sunday morning gospel hour. Griffin has written some of my absolute favorite songs, including “Mary” (which KILLS me, EVERY single time) and “Top of the World.” She performed “Heavenly Day” — and it was.
Hearing the silvery-voiced Sarah McLachlan both made me feel very, very fifteen again, but also reminded me how many songs she has written that I’ve loved and not listened to in forever: “Path of Thorns (Terms),” “Good Enough,” “Hold On” — I surprised myself with the quantity of singing along I was doing. Her performance was strong and vibrant, and induced at least one of my 20-something year old male friends to go home and download her greatest hits album at 3:00am. But I won’t name names.
I would study vocab cards every night for you, Colin
Let’s just set this straight. Even though I know that frontman Colin Meloy of The Decemberists is happily married to a talented lady and has a kiddo, I could stand all day blossoming under the quenching rain of his perfect vocabulary. I’m a sucker for smarts and wit. It leads to marvelous music, and their show was a delight. Surveying the Telluride crowd, he praised us: “each man more rugged than the next, each woman more sundressed and sunkissed than the next.”
All the songs from The King Is Dead (one of the best albums of 2011 thus far for me) seemed custom-penned to be performed in a setting like Telluride. It is the rootsiest of the Decemberists albums for a while, maybe ever, and the harmonica and fiddle felt right at home. Bela Fleck joined Colin for a (fake) dueling banjos challenge (to “win Telluride”), while Benmont Tench and Jerry Douglas also came out for the final song, a cover of “When U Love Somebody” by The Fruit Bats.
I don’t know why I thought that Mumford and Sons was not going to impress me again. So I’m figuring: I first saw them at SXSW 2009, at a small but hyper-potent daytime set at Maggie Mae’s outdoor stage. Having already been smitten by their songs, I fell instantly for their live show: “I felt more like me, only better, when their set spun off at full tilt. Jawdroppingly pure.” I named that set one of my favorite concerts of SXSW and the entire year. Last year at Telluride, they completely blew me away again – their very first show on Colorado soil, and everyone in the Sheridan Theater was singing at the top of their lungs, stomping so hard the floorboards shook. It felt like a secret exploding. I still get chills to think of it.
I was blind to my jadedness that assumed since they are huge on the radio now, since everyone seems to know their songs, that somehow their live show would have changed, becoming more diluted and sterilized. I could NOT have been more wrong, or more arrogant perhaps, to think so. They were completely incredible, playing in the pouring rain on Sunday night. It was the last show I saw (sorry, Robert, we had to get home ahead of the snow), and one of the most memorable. As the Punch Brothers played their set before the Mumfords (and covered Josh Ritter!), a frigid, steadily-increasing rain fell without ceasing, running in rivulets between my shoulder blades and dripping off the ends of my sweater sleeves. All the smart people pulled out their ponchos (me: not smart) and the audience turned into a sea of plastic primary colors. We shivered and were absolutely miserable.
But when Mumford & Sons took the stage, the crowd galvanized into one teeth-chattering supernova, singing with our heads back (“and Iiiiiiiii will hold on hope, and Iiiiiiii won’t let you choke / …and Iiiiiiiiii’ll find strength in pain and Iiiiii……”), dancing our frozen asses off. Not only was their set terrific (including Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Abigail Washburn coming out to play along), but they still retain all the passion that made me love them in the first place.
For someone who has played as many shows as these guys have, it was truly something exceptional. I saw our rain-soaked joy reflecting back off their faces, and it was a wonderful way to end Telluride 2011.
I spent most of this afternoon streaming the full new album from Patty Griffin, one I’ve been waiting to hear since I sat in the very sanctuary where it all happened. Downtown Church was recorded in one of the oldest churches in Nashville that once housed wounded Civil War soldiers amidst its Egyptian-themed murals and columns. I accompanied my friend there for her regular Sunday service when I was visiting in December, and was thrilled when the kids’ Sunday school teacher mentioned to me that Patty had recorded a full album there at the beginning of last year. The presence of the room is amazing, and I could picture Patty belting from the pulpit.
This is a full-on gospel album, with songs written and influenced by folks as varied as Hank Williams, Big Mama Thornton, and Bob Dylan. It’s produced by Buddy Miller, and the formidable Emmylou Harris loans her vocals, as well as “gospel royalty” like Regina and Ann McCrary. There were tinges of this warming, soulful authenticity on songs like the incredible “Mary” (in ’98) or cuts like “Up To The Mountain (MLK song)” from 2007′s Children Running Through. But this one lays down the folded-paper fans and Sunday dress hats, and just lets it go.
This song knocked the breath out of me the first time I heard it today, and sent all kinds of tingles up and down my spine. I closed my office door immediately and turned it way up, mesmerized. It starts humble, but it’s hard not to be moved by the end — the ache and the grief and the longing in her voice speaks as clearly as any of the words she is singing.
I also first thought she was singing, “I am waiting, waiting, for my time to come,” and to some degree, maybe we all are waiting for something. Waiting for someone to return, waiting for a clear path, waiting for a soulmate or a child or some inspiration.
This is a song for that.
Waiting For My Child To Come – Patty Griffin
Patty recorded a version of this song with Mavis Staples for the Oh Happy Daycompilation earlier this year, but this new version is even more solemn, more soulful, more absolutely convincing.
When Miller spoke of the genesis of this album concept, he stated that Patty “seemed to feel this would be good for her heart, too.” Yes.
“One of the first things she said was she wanted a room where she could kind of feel her voice coming back to her,” Miller says. “And my place doesn’t necessarily fall in that category. So I thought of this downtown Presbyterian church. I’d just done a couple songs as part of a benefit there. It’s the wildest looking thing, and it sounded beautiful. So I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask.”
And after you finish listening to this, try segueing seamlessly into Joshua James’ “Cold War” in all its boot-stomping gospel goodness, and be sated completely. Perfect.
Lately I’ve been hung up on aPatty Griffin song. She’s a songwriter whose waters I have wandered into deeply with a few specific songs, but I know she has so much more out there than what I have experienced. My first introduction to this Maine musician was her song “Top of the World,” covered by the Dixie Chicks on their 2002 album Home – and I just noticed she also wrote the closing track “Let Him Fly” on their 1999 album Fly. Both are astonishing, uncommonly potent songs.
I’ve said for years that “Top of the World” is probably one of of the saddest songs I know of by any artist, just this distilled essence of ache that is so hard to capture in a song. It’s a tale of regret and dead dreams, and not being able to do anything to fix what’s laying before you. You can listen to it here; the line about “I pretend to be sleeping when you come in in the morning, to whisper goodbye, go to work in the rain, I don’t know why…don’t know why” kills me every time. Everyone’s singing, we just wanna be heard.
In recent weeks the song of hers that I’ve re-discovered is “Mary.” It’s this razor-sharp rumination into motherhood and the beautiful humanity of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It’s not a religious song. Griffin takes a look at Mary as a common, complex woman weighted with (and sometimes obscured by) responsibilities, yet wreathed in beauty. I would postulate maybe even the latter because of the former.
you’re covered in roses
you’re covered in ashes
you’re covered in rain.
You’re covered in babies
covered in slashes
covered in wilderness
covered in stains.
You cast aside the sheets
you cast aside the shroud
of another man
who served the world proud
You greet another sun (son?)
you lose another one
on some sunny day
and always you stay
Jesus said, “Mother I couldn’t stay another day longer…”
he flies right by and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels are singing his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind
and starts cleaning up the place.
…Mary you’re covered in roses
you’re covered in ruins
you’re covered in secrets
you’re covered in treetops
covered in birds who can sing a million songs
without any words…
For me, the song speaks to the beautiful and complicated ways that caring for another, particularly in this case through motherhood, transforms both the individual doing the caring and the world. Mary is in the shadows of the blazes of glory in the chorus here, but she is doing the work that needs to be done through crippling loss. And there’s so much more to her than anyone knows.
Name: Heather Browne Location: Colorado, originally by way of California Giving context to the torrent since 2005.
"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
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