Although the Grammy-winning singers never took the stage together, their inspiring sets on a gorgeous Thursday night oozed “positive vibration.” (Review, photo gallery)
As Patty Griffin herself so aptly put it on Thursday night at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, “I like me some dark and tragic music.”
Support our coverage of
West Michigan's music scene
But as if to celebrate the lovely setting and Instagram-perfect weather, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter then launched into the upbeat and sunny, “Heavenly Day,” which she conceded was a love song she wrote for her dog. (“She was a helluva dog,” she insisted.)
And even though Griffin’s set was filled with her melancholy-yet-somehow-hopeful material, the evening really was a wholly uplifting affair – from the crowd-engaging opening set by Levon Helm’s daughter, Amy, and her band, The Handsome Strangers, (which appropriately played a rendition of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) to the rousing R&B- and gospel-propelled magic of another Grammy winner, Chicago’s Mavis Staples, and her crackerjack band.
Indeed, at 75, and just one day from her 76th birthday, Staples was a smiling bundle of positive energy during the hour-long set, from the opening volley of The Staples Singers’ “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” to the concert-closing, audience-igniting “I’ll Take You There.”
Griffin, 51, gushed more than once from the stage that she was thrilled to be part of the limited-run, nine-show “Sweet Harmony Soul” pairing with Staples that kicked off on Wednesday at Interlochen Center for the Arts.
GOSPEL MESHED WITH AMERICANA AND MORE
“We are so honored to be on this tour,” Griffin said, explaining that she first met Staples nine years ago when recording the acclaimed gospel album, “Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration.” “It was one of the happiest moments of my life. We still need Mavis after all this time.”
That project eventually inspired Griffin to record her own gospel album, “Downtown Church,” from which the singer and her band performed “Death’s Got a Warrant” and “Coming Home to Me” on Thursday.
Oddly enough, despite the respect they’ve earned in their respective genres, the alt-country and Americana-driven Griffin won her only Grammy Award for “best traditional gospel album” for 2011’s “Downtown Church” while Staples earned her first Grammy in 2011 in the Americana category for “You Are Not Alone.”
What that really means is that the pairing of these icons on the current tour is more than apropos because both artists clearly have been inspired by American roots music that oozes spirituality from the heart and soul.
That certainly was the case for enticing, brand new material that Griffin essentially was performing for the first or second time in concert.
Griffin won’t release her 10th studio album, “Servant of Love,” until Sept. 25 in the United States, about the time she’ll also launch a tour in support of the new project. But judging by the “sneak preview” she gave fans on Thursday, it’s liable to be a powerful, moving collection.
‘WE WANT TO LEAVE YOU FEELING GOOD’
The gritty, potent and slightly bluesy “Good and Gone,” “There Isn’t One Way” and “It Might Hurt a Little While” (I’m guessing at the titles of the last two of these yet-to-be-released tunes) resonated with an edgy, potent and instantly appealing vibe in the outdoor amphitheater, enhanced by the musicianship of guitarist David Pulkingham, bassist/guitarist Craig Ross and drummer Billy Harvey.
Mavis followed Griffin’s 54-minute set with a dance- and grin-inducing message of peace, love, racial harmony and social justice that she described as “positive vibration. We want to leave you feeling good.”
That was no problem, as the audience of about 1,250 embraced the iconic singer at every turn, from her funky treatment of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” to The Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself” and “Wish I Had Answered” to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” – all of it reflecting what amounts to a “summer of love” aura on a gorgeous summer night.
Staples and her band were alternately bluesy, rocking, funky, gospel-driven and rootsy, sparking enthused sing-alongs as well as a conga line of fans in front of the stage at one point.
If there was any disappointment, it was that neither Griffin nor Helm joined Staples on stage at the end of her set – whether by design or because of Meijer Gardens’ tight curfew.
But there was also a buoyant, revival-meeting flavor to Staples’ performance as darkness fell, and the singer couldn’t resist trumpeting the legendary Staples Singers’ incredible impact as a gospel, soul and pop institution.
“We’ve been ‘Taking You There’ for 65 years,” she proclaimed, “and we ain’t tired yet.”
And for that, we can all be thankful.
MAVIS STAPLES, PATTY GRIFFIN, AMY HELM: THE LOCAL SPINS PHOTO GALLERY (7/9/15)
Photos by Tori Thomas