Quality songcraft and small club ambience.
A smattering of crowd noise, then a quiet voice announces “Y’all welcome…Nanci Griffith”, and we’re spirited back to a warm Texas night in 1988, at the Anderson Fair, an old music hall in Houston.
“One Fair Summer Evening” is the document of that show (actually a combination of two shows on successive nights), and it captures a performer at the very peak of her powers. Live albums are a difficult thing to pull off, often because the energy of the moment does not translate so well from the show’s sound system to small home speakers. Given the intimacy and lack of volume at small shows, folk performers often come off better in this, and this record is testament to that.
Griffith was in the middle of a purple patch, having released stand out albums “The Last of the True Believers” (1986), “Lone Star State of Mind” (1987) and “Little Love Affairs” (1988) which established her as a writer of immense skill and poignancy. She was at pains to make the connection with the literary world, with two of those covers featuring prominently placed books, while her best songs had a storytelling strength behind them, tiny character studies wrapped in delicate melodies.
So, why choose a live album over any of those, as being a classic? Partly because, just occasionally, her studio albums could slightly overwhelm the subtlety of the songs, with production which was a little too enveloping. Mainly, though, because the extra dimension of Griffith onstage is an essential part of what made her so special. To hear these songs close to their original genesis, with just Griffith’s skilled picking and the elegant piano of regular collaborator James Hooker, is a gift that goes on giving.
A case in point is one of her greatest songs, “Love at the Five and Dime”, a tale of a couple who are nothing particularly remarkable, but in Griffith’s hands, their story unfolds like a novel. It traces the highs and lows of Eddie and Rita, a couple who have their travails, but end up with something like a happy ever after, or at least, a normal ever after, even though Eddie has withdrawn from the music scene ‘when arthritis took his hands’ to sell insurance, and Rita is still working at the local Woolworth store. The heartfelt final words, where they dance together to the radio in the kitchen, is such a warm image. Where it wins out over the album version, is that it showcases an exceptional guitar part by Griffith which is somewhat lost in the original…but even more, because it also showcases how easily Griffith can work an audience, with an extended spoken intro which is both hilariously off-kilter yet somehow on-point.
This is a theme in the album, with entertaining spoken interludes illuminating the songs that follow; and the songs, when they come, are beautifully represented in their stripped back acoustic settings. As a result, the focus is on the words, and that is just where it should be, with Griffith handpicking some of her very finest, from the small-time farmer in “Trouble In The Fields“, to the odd combination of strength and fragility in “More Than A Whisper”.
On top of this, as she always did on those early albums, Griffith also covers other artists songs, though these are frequently under-rated writers. So there is a joyous version of Bill Staines’ “Roseville Fair”, which could easily be a Griffith song with it’s small town love story; Julie Gold’s “From a Distance”, which proved an important launching pad for both writer and artist; and possibly best of all, the intensely detailed “Deadwood, South Dakota” by Eric Taylor, who had been Griffith’s spouse for a few years, though they were separated by the time this album came out.
Griffith has a straightforward poetry to her musings on the characters she sings about, but it may not be intense enough for everyone’s tastes. There are no songs about depravity of behaviour, no drug-addled brains or suicide or the darkness in the human soul. What there is, in abundance, is an understanding and skilful rendition of the quiet existence of ‘ordinary’ lives, of people getting on with it, taking small pleasures where they can, trying to work out why their relationships work or don’t work; the themes are small, in a way. Small, but resonant; and with a depth that has enduring truths in there, if we can listen quietly and carefully enough to hear them. Her skill with a melody shouldn’t be underestimated either, which is why these songs still carry weight over thirty years on. It’s a record with a warmth running right through it; and if the world seems overwhelming at times, it’s worth remembering we can close our eyes, take a breath, feel the air around us, and take some joy in a fair summer evening.