So let me go ahead and say, I am a Patty Griffin fan. Ever since some long forgotten friend introduced me to Living With Ghosts so many years ago, I have been mesmerized by her brilliant lyrical insight, mama-smacking vocals, and stellar acoustic guitar accompaniment. I don’t listen to a lot of music, but I have listened to Patty quite often, and I’ve recommended her more than any other artist since David Wilcox in the 90’s. So if you’re looking for an unbiased review, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a somewhat informed perspective, that’s me! So read on!
Downtown Church is an important and impressive addition to Ms. Griffin’s catalog. Recorded in the mysteriously beautiful First Presbyterian Church in Downtown Nashville, and with roots music chief Buddy Miller shepherding the project, the result is like a sunrise. . .unsurprisingly spectacular. All the arrangements are beautifully straight-forward, colored by Hammond organ, earthy percussion, electric and acoustic guitars, piano, cello, accordian, violin, pedal steel, and many voices of talented friends.
Personally, It was fun to see Ms. Griffin open the record with the old Hank Williams song, “House of Gold”. I recorded “House of Gold” over a decade ago and I’m thrilled that Ms. Griffin will bring the song to light for more listeners. The theme of humility before God and an awareness of this world’s insufficiency permeates Downtown Church, and Ms. Griffin’s lilting, sparse version serves as an effective intro.
When I was in college, I spent the summer in Athens, GA where I joined Timothy Baptist Church as an “honorary member.” I also felt a little like the honorary white guy, since I was the only one there. The next song on the record, “Move Up”, along with “If I Had My Way”, “Wade in the Water”, and “The Strange Man”, feels like the potent and soulful songs I sang that summer with the congregation at Timothy Baptist. Belting over the tambourine and those thick gospel harmonies, Ms. Griffin seems right at home. She brings stunning passion and ownership to the chorus of “If I Had My Way”, singing “If I had my way, I would tear this building down” and I imagine her with her headphones on, singing into the mic inside Downtown Pres, every word drenched in meaning. I had never heard this traditional song (popularized by long time Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Wier) but it is brilliant, and brilliantly interpreted, and was initially my favorite track on the record.
Having kept up with some of her interviews over the years, I know that Ms. Griffin keeps her journey of faith mostly to herself, though I gather that she is as much a skeptic as a believer. This tension in her personal story brings more gravity to the whole project, especially on songs like “The Strange Man”–where Ms. Griffin’s powerful voice soars as Jesus meets the woman at the well and then the woman caught in adultery. In the rousing bridge, supported by Regina McCrary and Mike Farris, Ms. Griffin sings “I met that same man.”
When the record doesn’t lean toward the stomp and clap of gospel, it leans toward the picking of old country, and that flavor comes out no purer than on “Never Grow Old,” a traditional hymn that longs for heaven as Ms. Griffin blends with Buddy Miller’s weathered tenor. My mother-in-law was just in town for a visit and she recalled playing that song on the piano as a girl growing up in rural Alabama. It was worth the price of admission just to hear Patty Griffin sing…
When our work here is done and the life crown is won
And our troubles and trials are o’er
All our sorrows will end, all our voices will blend
With the loved ones who’ve gone on before
Mmm.. gives me chills just sitting here at the computer.
Much to my joy, Ms. Griffin penned two original songs for Downtown Church. Of those, “Little Fire” is a wonderfully simple song about faith where she writes that she would “give back these things I know are meaningless for a little fire beside me when I sleep.” There are many timeless Patty Griffin songs in her repertoire, and “Little Fire” reaches that bar. However, my only complaint about this record rose up particularly on this song, and that is, I couldn’t understand some of the lyrics on a couple of songs even after cranking the volume and listening over and over.
The album closes artfully with one of our oldest hymns, written by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th Century. In the hands of Patty Griffin, “All Creatures of Our God and King” rings out wistfully as well as worshipfully over simple piano accompaniment. Ms. Griffin may not have all her theology figured out, but neither do I, which makes this record that much more affecting for me. To be able to sing Alleluia in the face of confusion and uncertainty is the ultimate hope of earthly faith. Ms. Griffin does that on Downtown Church, and the record is killer to listen to. What more do you want?