in performance: patty griffin/scott miller

Patty Griffin. Photo by Michael Wilson.

For a brief instance, after referencing teenage activist Greta Thunberg, it looked like Patty Griffin was going to let loose on the headlines of the day. But the veteran Texas songstress, who is no stranger to championing a cause, instead took a breath, flashed a smile and resumed her sublime performance on Tuesday evening at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.

“No, we’re not going to get into that.”

Not that the unrest of the outside world didn’t reach into the séance-like setting Griffin and her very industrious trio summoned. During “The Wheel,” one of eight tunes performed from her self-titled 10th album, she sewed together ragged bits of guitar and percussion to color a tale that began as a stormy blues meditation (“Here’s a song about sitting in a dark room, losing track of your mind”) before coming up for air in 2014 New York with a not-so-thinly veiled recollection of Eric Garner’s death during a petty arrest (“Here’s a song about a man, about a man I never met… choked to death by a policeman for selling single cigarettes”).

The rest of the performance wasn’t nearly so disquietly or as electric. Aided by guitarist David Pulkingham (who doubled on piano) and drummer Conrad Choucroun (who also played bass, guitar and piano), Griffin offered contemplations filled with spacious ambience. While the ghostly, gospel-esque colors of her singing sometimes turned her lyrics into a blur, the overall atmosphere she orchestrated was nonetheless arresting.

Sometimes the allure was deceptively serene, as in “Where I Come From,” another work from her new album that breezed musically along like a train heading into the stillness of winter as it outlined the slow fade of the rural Maine town she grew up in. On others, like “Luminous Place,” a generous dab of echo on Griffin’s singing, along with some sparse piano/guitar accompaniment, made the music sound otherworldly.

The nods to older material were equally striking, from the ancient mandolin tone Griffin use to drive “Shine A Different Way” (from 2015’s “Servant of Love”) to the down-home jubilance of the show-closing “Heavenly Day,” which the singer confessed was really a love song to her dog (from 2007’s “Children Running Through”).

The performance was opened by Virginia songsmith Scott Miller, whose performance history in Lexington was considerable between 1995 and 2005, first as a member of the Knoxville rock/pop quartet The V-Roys and then as a solo artist.

His solo acoustic return on Tuesday offered a 35 minute set of alert works from throughout his career that pared down the cunning urgency of his electric records (the 18 year old “I Made a Mess of This Town”) while offering a vivid folk Poloroid of the floods unleashed in 1969 by Hurricane Camille (the as yet unrecorded “It’ll Never Be That River Again”). Vocally, thematically and compositionally, it was a splendid set.

It should be noted both artists made cameos during each other’s performance on Tuesday. Griffin added primal country harmonizing for Miller’s finale rumination, “Is There Room on the Cross for Me?” while Miller added some train whistle harmonica to Griffin’s otherwise solo version of “Love Throw a Line.”

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