- By Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
Taking the stage at the Continental Club on an early September evening with guitarist David Pulkingham at her side, Patty Griffin seems perfectly at home — almost as if she’s among the South Congress institution’s select keepers of its revered weekly residencies.
The few dozen audience members who found out about the show via social media a few hours earlier consider themselves lucky. When an artist can play concerts at the Paramount Theatre, as Griffin will on Wednesday night, doing a Continental happy-hour gig requires a little sleight of hand. On the club’s calendar, she was listed as “Tony the Tiger.”
When she starts playing songs from her new album “Servant of Love,” moving from guitar to piano as Pulkingham weaves acoustic and electric leads around her, Griffin is squarely in focus. “Thank you for being our guinea pigs,” she tells the crowd, explaining that she and Pulkingham were off to the U.K. a couple of days later to begin touring for the album. Her voice rises up and fills the room, lighting up everything from the delicate “Made of the Sun” to the fervent “There Isn’t One Way” with the honest passion that is Griffin’s hallmark as an artist.
“Servant of Love” digs into that passion as deeply as Griffin has ever reached. Musically, it cuts a wide swath, stretching from slow-burning soul-blues (“Hurt a Little While”) to soaring ethereal folk (“Rider of Days”) to eerily droning mysticism (“Good and Gone”) to straightforward piano balladry (“You Never Asked Me”). She dramatically sets the tone right up front with the title track, a dreamlike reverie that first came to her in the middle of the night.
“I don’t think it’s an easy thing,” Griffin says over lunch at New World Deli when asked about what it means to be a servant of love — or of anything. “We’re not servants of time, necessarily, but we all are connected in this way to something much bigger than we understand. And I sense that whatever that is, it’s supporting my life.”
Citing the influence of 20th-century American writer James Baldwin, whose works she’s been rereading recently, Griffin presses on toward the truth she sought to find in the song. “I have to now figure out ways to move toward where being alive is,” she says. “And I feel like that is always an unsafe place. But that’s where love is, and that’s where life is. ‘Servant of Love’ was really mysterious to me.”
A conversation with Griffin can easily turn down long and winding paths about the nature of the human experience — much as her songs have traveled those roads, a few minutes at a time, for more than 20 years. Since the late 1990s, she’s been in Austin. She laughs when she realizes she’s lived here even longer than she did in her native state of Maine.
Though Griffin struggles with the politics of Texas, when she speaks about the geography of the Hill Country, her eyes brighten. “I’ve kind of fallen in love with the landscape,” she says. “Even though it’s hot a lot and we’ve been in a drought, there’s something about how it goes from this clay and these crazy trees straight into the desert, just a few miles from here.
“There’s something beautiful about the place. It’s like home — this is my home.”
Much of that feeling stems from the city’s music community, which embraced Griffin when she arrived here from Nashville. It’s telling that “Servant of Love” is the most Austin-centric record Griffin has made to date. Recorded at David Boyle’s Church House studio in East Austin with producer Craig Ross, the album features a supporting cast of almost entirely local musicians, including Pulkingham and Scrappy Jud Newcomb on guitars, Conrad Choucroun on drums, Ephraim Owens on trumpet, Shawn Colvin on backing vocals, Ralph White on kalimba and Liondsey Verrill on bowed bass. Only Nashville keyboardist John Deaderick, a longtime Griffin associate, is an import.
It’s not the first time Griffin has recorded in Austin — 2004’s “Impossible Dream” was made here — “but we brought in a lot of outside players, so it didn’t really feel completely ‘Austin-tuned,’” she says, coining a pretty cool phrase. She’s made most of her records in Nashville, but the appeal of not having to leave home this time was enticing.
“And I did think to myself, ‘There’s so many great people here,’” she says. “I didn’t neglect Austin (in the past) because I didn’t like it. I just was already hooked in for recording through Nashville. So I knew more people there.”
But as she got to know musicians in Austin, things changed. “I recognize how much over the years the different people I’ve worked with in town have influenced my interest in music — and influenced the way I play,” she says.
As an example, she recalls that after she’d played for years with Latin drummer Michael Longoria, she did an acoustic show in London without him, “and the sound guy said, ‘Do you guys play with a Latin drummer?’” She laughs. “So it obviously had some kind of effect on my style.”
More recently, her work with Pulkingham helped to shape the songs on “Servant of Love.” Pulkingham left his longtime place in Alejandro Escovedo’s band a couple of years ago to work with Griffin and to pursue his own music. His new album “Little Pearl,” released last month, features a vocal cameo by Griffin on the title track.
“Some of the songs on this record are written around his playing,” she says. “I know what he can do with an acoustic guitar, and I heard in my memory while I was arranging guitar parts what he might possibly bring to it.”
Even more central to “Servant of Love” is Ross. Griffin met him in a New Orleans studio shortly before she moved to Austin and has worked with him on several albums, including the new record’s 2013 predecessor “American Kid.”
“Over the years, we’ve had so many conversations and times of playing together, and we’ve helped each other in our lives in different ways,” she says. “He’s just a really good friend and confidante, and the musical relationship is really strong.”
Another collaborator on “American Kid” was Robert Plant, with whom Griffin recorded and toured for the Led Zeppelin singer’s 2010 “Band of Joy” album. Plant moved to Austin to be with Griffin, but they’ve since split and he moved away. If the new album’s next-to-last song, “You Never Asked Me,” sounds like it might be about that relationship, Griffin firmly but politely bars any notion that it’s open for discussion.
“I feel like that’s my personal life, and it has always been my personal life, and it’s always been fairly separate,” she says. “If you’ve been in a relationship, you know that they’re so complex. There’s no few sentences that could address any of it that would do it justice.”
Almost all other topics lead to enlightening discussions, including a question about the new album’s dark, bluesy track “Gunpowder” and its indictment of environmental irresponsibility from “captains of industry,” as she put it to an intimate crowd at a recent KUTX studio performance.
“In my way of looking at the world, it’s so impractical to keep taking natural space and obliterating it,” she says, admitting that Texas’ environmental policies often are hard for her to reconcile. “But a part of me feels like, ‘You could stay here and try to figure it out and try to make it better.’”
A big part of that long-term vision for staying in Austin revolves around her music. “As I grow older, my dream is to play in town on a regular basis,” she says. “To have music be a regular part of my week, as opposed to just living here and having a gig feel like it’s another stop on the tour.”
When it’s suggested that a residency would be hard to pull off given her typical draw, she responds, intriguingly, “If we did it in French or Spanish, I could do it.” In fact, at that recent Continental Club happy-hour performance, she opened with a song sung in Spanish.
It seems a given that Austin audiences would welcome Griffin in any language if she wanted to play here regularly. “That makes so much more sense to me, as a way to live life,” she concludes. “If you’re a singer, go sing, all the time!”