Nanci Griffith was on my list of favorite musicians whom I'd never seen perform. She hasn't been in Boston much in the past 10 years, but she recently released a new record and as soon as she was scheduled for Boston I snapped up tickets, front row center at the Wilbur. The Kennedys are all over the new record and I had heard they were appearing with her so we were excited, but were not at all prepared for one of the best concert experiences we've ever had.
Parked in Sarah's building, walked across the Common, and ate at Jacob Wirth's again, then walked over to the Wilbur, whose floor had been set up in the "cafe seating" arrangement, and took our seats at our front-center table.
Pete and Maura tuned up over on the left of the stage and then did an opening set. I've seen The Kennedys many times and, though this set didn't feature the incendiary guitar work they sometimes get into, their song list made it fabulous: Half a Million Miles, 9th Street Billy, a new original, and Breath to start. Maura was playing her shallow, small gut-string while Pete was on his big red Gibson. Then we took a breath and they introduced their transcendent version of Dave Carter's When I Go. Then they strummed a few notes and went into Matty Groves, which had us in ecstasy ... again, they didn't do a lead-guitar, dark version of this spooky ballad of class and murder but they nailed a folk version of it. Then a special guest came out, Nanci of course, and they finished with the Monkees' (actually John Stewart's) Daydream Believer. This was another case of if we had left the theater right then we would have been gushing about this concert, but it had only just begun.
The "full" band was Nanci sitting on a stool in the middle with her long-time percussionist Pat McInerney on snare, tabla, and cymbals on the left, and Maura and then Pete on the right sitting on stools themselves. Their set had a couple of end tables and lamps and with us sitting ten feet away at our table we were totally in their living room. Every once in a while I'd turn around to verify that yes, this was just an illusion and we really were in a grown-up theater.
I love sitting close at folk concerts, one reason being that I can hear what the instruments and the voices sound like before they're amplified and mixed. In some cases this means hearing slightly unbalanced sound; with the opening set the sound was definitely not as perfect as if I'd been 20 rows back, but even though (e.g.) Pete's guitar wasn't as loud as it should have been I could see him strumming it perfectly and hear it uncooked. For the second set there wasn't any of this: we were in their living room and the sound was as direct, uncluttered, and pure as you could imagine.
Nanci showed some age, but was as beautiful and graceful as we'd imagined; she has incredibly long fingers (especially when wearing finger picks!). Maura is beautiful too, and was wearing a stunning dress made from my grandmother's tablecloth. Those two were on guitar while Pat played the skins and Pete alternated between electric guitar and bass. He is such a wizard that some of his best rocking guitar leads were actually played on the bass. Nanci sung lead on all the songs they did with Maura then joining in on the high harmonies and Pete adding to the choruses.
OK, those are the details but you just cannot imagine how wonderful this ensemble and this setting was. As mentioned, I really have to rate it as one of the best concerts I've ever been too, and there have been a bunch. Nanci wavered a bit but then led with her voice was strong and authentic as you could ever want, and the sound of Maura harmonizing with her was beyond ethereal ... it was just magical. This may seem foolish, but I not only had to check once in a while that I really was in a concert hall rather than having died and gone to heaven, I had to make an effort to stop myself from giggling several times because the sensation was so incredible. Not only were the vocals beyond top notch, but Pat McInerney's percussion was brilliant and Pete's guitar work was jaw-dropping. I could have stayed in that living room forever.
And the set list? Well, they opened with Speed Of the Sound Of Loneliness, played a few of the best songs from the new record (Bethlehem Steel, Intersection, and Never Going Back), did Love At the Five and Dime, a song Nanci had written with Elizabeth Cook (after a nice mention of Elizabeth and her family), Across the Great Divide, Trouble In the Fields, Listen To the Radio (after a nice tribute to Loretta Lynn), Flyer, From a Distance, Just Another Morning, and then (of course) Nanci's new anthem Hell No! for an encore, all mixed in with other Nanci classics. How's that sound?
Phew! If you haven't guessed, Sarah and I were just blown away by this concert and we had to sit back down at our table and gush a bit before we left. All I can say is that for those of you who weren't there, you missed one of the best things I've ever heard. And that tablecloth was pretty impressive as well!
p.s. You can see an album of pictures at http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150880287996041.487275.48055261040&type=3 ... skip past the audience shots!