Category Archives: Nanci Griffith

Of Concerts Past: Nanci Griffith – One Fair Autumn Evening

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Oct. 25, 1989: Rows of folding metal chairs lined the floor of the West Philly concert venue this Wednesday night, a fair autumn evening if ever there was one – after a high of 77, temperatures plummeted into the 40s overnight. Two weeks before, we’d caught Lenny Kravitz’s Philadelphia debut at this same club; and a week later we’d see Syd Straw (with Dave Alvin on guitar) open for Camper Van Beethoven. For those concerts, we were situated on one of the raised sides, where tables and spotty service could sometimes be had. Tonight, however, we were down in the valley (so to speak) – and in the front row.

The headliner: Texas-bred singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith.

James McMurtry, then known primarily as the son of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry, opened with a solid set drawn from his stellar debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, which was one of my favorite albums that year. He was backed by a crack band; I remember the drummer pounded those skins like his life depended on it.

nanci_stormsAt the time, Nanci Griffith was riding high – and winning a smattering of new fans – thanks to her sublime Storms album, which embraced a slightly sleeker pop sound than her previous country-folk works. Produced by Glyn Johns, it featured guest turns from Phil Everly, Bernie Leadon and Albert Lee and such songs as “Listen to the Radio,” “If Wishes Were Changes,” “Drive-In Movies and Dashboard Lights,” the title track and “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go.” To my ears (then and now), Storms is a stone-cold classic.

Although I already liked her music, I’d never seen her live, so I was psyched; and her 90-minute set didn’t disappoint. I believe she opened with the charming “Love at the Five and Dime,” complete with the sweet story that leads into it…

…but I could be wrong. The night’s songs are something of a jumble. I remember she played a wondrous rendition of “If Wishes Were Changes,” one of my favorite songs by her…

…and “There’s a Light Beyond These Words (Mary Margaret).”

“Listen to the Radio,” complete with a wonderful run on the keys by James Hooker, was another highlight.

And, of course, “It’s a Hard Life,” a song I’ve probably heard her sing dozens of times in the years since.

Okay, so dozens is a tad hyperbolic, but in the decades since that autumn evening, Diane and I have seen Nanci more times than either of us can count – basically, whenever she’s played the Philadelphia area. We’ve seen her at the Chestnut Cabaret, Penn’s Landing, TLA, Keswick, Tower Theater, World Cafe Live, even the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Del., where she was accompanied by the Crickets (as in, Buddy Holly’s Crickets).

Anyway, here’s the Philadelphia Inquirer’s review of the same concert: Cogitation, Country-style, at the Chestnut.

Today’s Top 5: 1991

dodgecolt002Twenty-five years ago today as I write, on Wednesday Sept. 25, 1991, Diane and I were brand-new to married life, having gotten hitched the previous Friday in Philly’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. It was, suffice it to say, a great day – up until we walked out of the French restaurant where we held the wedding: my brother and a friend had decked out my car, a Dodge Colt, in festive wedding gear, and tied empty cans to the back. That centuries-old tradition sounds charming, I suppose, but try driving with said cans clanging on Chestnut Hill’s cobblestone streets… as Bill the Cat might say, “Ack!” At the first opportunity, I cut ’em loose. Anyway, we waited until the following spring for our actual honeymoon, a wondrous California odyssey, and spent the weekend down the shore. We already lived together, so the adjustment was minimal – changing our W-4s was it, I think.

Here’s our living room from January 1991:

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Yes, that’s a lot of CDs; and the number only increased, as they spawned often. By decade’s end, they took over that end of the living room.

smokey_ogc001Although I don’t remember the specifics of this particular Wednesday, I can still lay out a large chunk of what happened based on routine: I woke around 6:30, left at 7:35am, arrived at work 10-15 minutes later, and then sat at a desk for a spell. Those were the days of hour-long paid lunches (what a concept!), and I made use of the time by heading home most middays. Without morning traffic, it took 10 minutes each way. I brought in the mail, likely indulged the original old grey cat, Smokey, with a few treats, and worked on the Great American Novel, which I spent much of the ‘90s writing, re-writing and never completing.

That’s to say, in addition to a cat, we had a computer – a second-hand x286 IBM clone. It came with an eight-gig hard drive, 256MBs of memory and a modem, which meant we could, and did, connect to the sandboxed universe of Prodigy. My dad, God bless him, dumbed down the DOS operating system for us and installed a simple menu, so accessing a program was never more than one or two keystrokes away – as in, A, B, C, D or E. For me, at lunchtime, that meant firing up the word processor and tap-tap-tapping away.

The top movie of 1991 was The Silence of the Lambs, which Diane and I saw while down the shore for a week in the spring. (We read the book and Red Dragon, the novel that preceded it, in the same week. Yes, we were eyeing everyone with suspicion.) Other popular films included Beauty and the Beast, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Point Break and Hook, none of which interested me then or now; and Thelma & Louise.

On the economic front, America was teetering: unemployment averaged 6.8 percent for the year and inflation, at 4.2 percent, was a source of concern as January dawned, though it (thankfully) fell over the next 12 months. Still, there was reason to rejoice: the USSR officially disbanded on December 26th and, with it, the Cold War came to an end – at least, it came to an end for a time. We’ve recently seen the rich man’s Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, upping Russia’s nationalistic ante as a way to distract everyday Russians from their own economic woes; and those dupes who’d play cards with him, such as Donald Trump, apparently have no clue that he’s dealing from a stacked deck.

Back on point: In the music-history books, 1991 is heralded for the breakthrough of the paradigm-shifting Nirvana, whose influential Nevermind was released 25 years ago yesterday. I’d love to say that I was among the first to buy it and take the music to heart. I wasn’t. I was in a different mind-space, as my list below shows. That’s not to say I didn’t and don’t appreciate the immediate impact and lingering influence of Nevermind; if I was creating an objective list for the year, I’d rank it No. 1. I’m not, however, so I won’t.

Before I get to the list: My main music-related memory from 1991 isn’t of an album, but of two sterling shows that we saw in the span of a few weeks, both at the TLA in Philly: Rosanne Cash on her Interiors tour; and the Irish singer Mary Black on her Babes in the Woods tour. Rosie’s was, as Dan DeLuca phrases it in his review, “an ‘I can’t remember the last time I saw anything this good’ show’; and Mary Black’s was as magical. (I reference it in this Of Concerts Past post about her 1994 show at the Chestnut Cabaret.) Other shows we saw in 1991: Elvis Costello with the Replacements; Emmylou Harris with Chet Atkins; Kathy Mattea with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; Roger McGuinn; Bonnie Raitt with Chris Isaak; and K.T. Oslin with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman’s group, the Desert Rose Band. There were plenty of others.

For today’s Top 5: 1991.

1) Mary Black – Babes in the Wood. Selected track: “Still Believing.” I mentioned that memorable show of hers above because, looking back, I’m sure that live experience played a major part in my picking this as my favorite of the year. To this day, whenever I play the CD – or, now, stream it – I’m transported to the TLA, seated about halfway back, with Diane by my side.

2) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Weld. Selected track: “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Now, this is my idea of grunge. Neil Young returned from the wilderness in 1989 with the stellar Freedom; followed it the next year with the raucous, Crazy Horse-infused Ragged Glory; and put a cap on his comeback with the electric tour captured on Weld, which could well be summed up in two words: brutal grace.

3) Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend. Selected track: “Divine Intervention.” One of my most-played albums of ’91, which is saying something as it was released in October of that year. This track, like the album as a whole, is delightfully trippy – and very Beatlesque.

4) John Mellencamp – Whenever We Wanted. Selected track: “Whenever We Wanted.” This, Mellencamp’s first release of the ‘90s, bypasses much of his late ‘80s Americana stylings in favor of the crunchy rock of Uh-Huh; and often substitutes sloganeering for the incisive short stories that accent Scarecrow, Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy. That said, a handful of songs – including this cut – stand with his greatest work.

5) Soundtrack – Falling From Grace. Selected track: Nanci Griffith’s “Cradle of the Interstate.” So John Mellencamp made a movie. I have no idea if it was good, bad or mediocre, as I’ve never seen it., but I can say without equivocation that the soundtrack – which preceded the film by a few months – was uniformly excellent, featuring tunes from Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, Larry Crane, Lisa Germano and Nanci Griffith.

And a few bonuses:

6) Nanci Griffith – Late Night Grande Hotel. Selected track: “It’s Just Another Morning Here.” A solid, if slightly overproduced, outing from the folkabilly singer-songwriter, who was one of our favorites. The songs played better live, as recall. I do wonder what’s become of her…

7) Lisa Germano – On the Way Down From Moon Palace. Selected track: “Riding My Bike.” Germano, of course, came to the fore as the fiddler in Mellencamp’s band – and is a phenomenal fiddler. This jazzy solo effort is likely not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy it.

8) Blake Babies – Rosy Jack World. Selected track: “Temptation Eyes,” Juliana. John. Freda. What else need be be said?

Today’s Top 10: It Was 30 Years Ago Today…

psu_desk_86001Thirty years ago today I was but a few weeks into my senior year of college. The picture to the left is of my desk in my dorm room, and it tells much about me then – a print of the Gilbert Williams painting “Celestial Visitation,” which is probably known to most as the cover of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1982 Daylight Again album; beside it, the fold-out poster that came with Madonna’s True Blue LP; my Ballad of Sally Rose button, which I purchased the previous year when I saw Emmylou Harris in concert, is beneath it; and, beneath that, a picture of the Beatles, circa 1967, that was taken by Linda Eastman (though I didn’t know it at the time). To the left of that: a postcard from the Wings Fun Club that looked cool to me; and, beneath that, a Marilyn Monroe postcard. I can’t make out the rest, but suffice it to say that I had one foot in the past, another in the present, and an ear for hip country sounds.

According to the Weather Underground, September 5th, 1986, was a rainy day in State College, home of the Penn State mothership, with a high of 75 degrees and a low of 55. Hot movies that summer included She’s Gotta Have It, Stand by Me and The Fly; and Shanghai Surprise, which starred Madonna and Sean Penn, had cratered at the box office the previous weekend. In America at large, the economy was still in the midst of rebounding from the nasty recession of 1981-82; the unemployment rate at the start and end of the month clocked in at seven percent – not a great number, but much better than the double-digit rates of late 1982 and early ’83 – and inflation, at all of 1.8 percent, was a non-factor.

The state of my personal economy was fairly good, too: I had a summer’s worth of savings thanks to full-time shifts at a department store back home. I continued selling my plasma twice a week like clockwork, most weeks, and rented out my student pass for Nittany Lion home games; while I attended every tailgate, I actually only saw one game during my two years at main campus. (And no regrets about that, either.) My expenses consisted primarily of fast-food, alcohol and cigarettes.

Looking back, the ‘80s were somewhat like a snow globe: America was shaken at its start, but everything settled into place by decade’s end. That the era is often derided for its fashion miscues, pop music and political retrenchment is a shame; there was much good to be found. As for 1986? It’s likely remembered most for the tragedy that begat the year, the Challenger disaster –

– but the year was far more than that sad day.

Anyway, inspired both by Herc’s Hideaway’s recent countdown of the Top 100 Albums of 1984 (the link takes you to the Top 10; navigate to older posts and you’ll find his 11-90 entries), here’s my Top 10 from ’86. Why that year? Well, “It Was 30 Years Ago Today” has a nice ring to it…

1) Paul Simon – Graceland. Selected track: “The Boy in the Bubble.” Rolling Stone recently ran down 10 Things You Didn’t Know about the album, which was released on Aug. 25, 1986. To my ears, it sounds as fresh today as it did then. The title track is sheer genius, and I almost spotlighted it, but this song contains what may well be the one line I quote more than any other (by any artist): “Every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.”

2) The Bangles – Different Light. Selected track: “If She Knew What She Wants.” Yeah, some folks may not rank this album quite as high as me, but – I loved it then, and I love it now. Back when it was released, in early ’86, much of my music purchases was on cassette – they took up less room and, too, I had a cassette deck in my car. I actually played my original tape so much that you could hear the music on the flip side bleeding through.

A quick side-note: Those top two picks are easy enough for me to recall, as I noted them at the time; and have kept them on one list or another every year since. Numbers 3 on – I’m guesstimating to an extent, as they’re albums that I loved then and still enjoy today. Where, exactly, they fall…that’s up for (internal) debate.

3) Dwight Yoakam – Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. Selected track: “Honky Tonk Man,” the lead single to Dwight’s debut album, is a remake of a classic Johnny Horton song. It’s just plain intoxicating; and, at the time, it sent out a signal that Yoakam was pursuing a more purist sound than the era’s Urban Cowboy-flavored norm.

4) Steve Earle – Guitar Town. Selected track: “Guitar Town.” Another country-music outsider, another great debut. It was considered too country for rock audiences and too rock for country folk, but it found its niche with those of us who liked both.

5) Belinda Carlisle – Belinda. Selected track: “Mad About You.” The former (and future) lead singer of the Go-Go’s released her solo debut during the early summer, and it’s a gem. As with the four preceding entries, it’s an album I still listen to on a regular basis. And here’s some trivia: Andy Taylor (of Duran Duran) plays the guitar solo on this song; and the album also features former Wings guitarist Laurence Juber and non-Rolling Stone Nicky Hopkins in addition to fellow Go-Go Charlotte Caffey, who wrote one of the songs and co-wrote four others.

6) Robert Cray – Strong Persuader. Selected track: “Smoking Gun.” As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, part of my time at Penn State included spinning discs on the weekend Folk Show on WPSU. I first learned of Cray in late ’85 or early ’86 from a fellow deejay, and – as a result – already owned one of his other albums, Bad Influence, which was a good, not great, affair. This release was simply phenomenal, and this song… well, you kinda know something’s an instant classic when a bar band in the boondocks, aka Bellefonte, Pa., plays it – and that’s exactly what happened sometime in… egads. Late ’86? Early ’87? God only knows…

7) Madonna – True Blue. Selected track: “Papa Don’t Preach.” Yeah, yeah, some people will undoubtedly smirk upon seeing Madonna’s name in this list, but I have no shame. I loved it then, as evidenced by the poster above my dorm-room desk, and still find it enjoyable today. It was also the last of her albums that I liked from start-to-finish.

8) Van Morrison – No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Selected track: “In the Garden.” One of my favorite Van albums, and one of his all-time best. Words really don’t do it justice.

9) Nanci Griffith – Lone Star State of Mind. Selected track: “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret).” I discovered Nanci through the Folk Show the year before; one of her songs was on a Fast Folk Musical Magazine sampler (this one, in fact) that I found in WPSU’s record library; and this song, which was originally recorded for her 1978 debut, was another that I showcased on occasion.

10) Lone Justice – Shelter. Selected track: “Wheels.” Lone Justice Mach II wasn’t on a par with the original lineup, and this sophomore set wasn’t as strong as the original lineup’s 1985 debut. Yet, even with that, it contains some of Maria McKee’s greatest songs, including “I Found Love,” the title cut, “Dixie Storms” and this.

In retrospect, there are other albums I’d rank higher than a few of these – Janet Jackson’s Control, for instance, deserves mention – but I didn’t become familiar with them until the late ’80s, when I worked in a new-fangled CD store. But that’s a post for another day…