Virtuoso is a word generally saved for musicians, a word used to describe how Chet Atkins can find the perfect melody for any song on a guitar or the way Ralph Mooney made his steel do things no steel had ever done before. Patty Griffin is a virtuoso and her instrument in her voice. At first it seems to only be a pleasingly simple folk soprano, but Griffin always finds the perfect vocal to go with ever song and makes her voice do things no one else could make it do. On her latest album, Downtown Church, Griffin turns her voice to Gospel. It becomes a canvass that allows her to stretch her already wondrous voice into new and amazing places, which leave all of us the better for the ride.
Patty Griffin opens the album with a lovely and simple rendition of Hank Williams’ House of Gold. Her voice unfurls into its full glory against a simple backdrop of quiet strings. From there she unleashes the cannon, running the gamut from original material like Coming Home To Me to a reprise of Waiting for My Child To Come Home, a song to dueted with Mavis Staples on for the album O Happy Day. She brings forth the quiet and sweet side that garners so much praise for her vocals, but she also pushes them into gruff and growling territory on scorchers like “I Smell A Rat” and “If I Had My Way.” The album was recorded live at The Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville with a cast of friends that include Shawn Colvin, Buddy and Julie Miller and Emmylou Harris, in an attempt to recreate the same atmosphere of old Staples singers albums. In addition to all of her friends being incredibly talented in their own right, with harmony vocals that blend well with Griffin’s, this arrangement also allows for an atmosphere of communion and community that reminds us what the heart of Church is really all about.
Griffin has stated that she believes that Gospel is where the roots of all the music she likes started, and its influence on her music is easy for even the casual fan to pick up. However, her choices on this album are not about the smiling, simple faith you might find on the latest WOW collection. Her faith is made up of more uncertain and gritty stuff. Thus, Downtown Church become more than another singer turning her hand to the songs she grew up listening to in Church. It is an exploration of the soaring, earthy, shouted and murmured nature of faith itself.