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Review: Grace Griffith, Sailing

Grace Griffith
[Blix Street Records (2010)]

Fresh from an appearance opening the second World Parkinson Congress this past autumn in Glasgow, Scotland and drawing on her own young onset of the neurological disorder to address the gathering on how Parkinson’s has affected her life and musical performance, before and after she underwent an experimental treatment closer to home at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Maryland that enabled Grace Griffith to sing again, Blix Street Records has compiled Sailing, a brief set of reissued tracks. Oddly enough, no selections were made from Griffith’s marvelous 1993 self-released debut album originally titled Every Hue and Shade. That record so captivated the west coast-based founder of Blix Street Records, Bill Straw, that he licensed it for wider distribution under the new title Grace in 1996, along with Griffith’s pair of collaborative albums of traditionally-themed Irish Celtic music recorded with fine fiddler Cathy Palmer and other superb players under the name Connemara.

Straw’s selection of a representative set highlights some of Grace Griffith’s strengths as an independent artist who may be steeped in Celtic traditions, but whose repertoire is surely not immobilized by them. Standout tracks include the opener pulled from Grace Griffith’s first recording for Blix Street in 2000, a rhythmically delightful arrangement of Canadian bard Bruce Cockburn’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” Production partner Marcy Marxer sets Griffith’s often ethereal voice more firmly in the terra with solid percussive backing from Anderson Allen’s congas and Marxer’s own well-placed pinging accents of steel drum. There is a hearty male chorus for robust contrast adding depth to longtime Griffith band-mate Al Petteway’s perky steel-string picking that feels tightly wound into Grace Griffith’s wonder-inducing phrasing.

“Shape of My Heart” follows with a lyric surprisingly sharper sounding in Griffith’s voicing than Sting’s no doubt better-known recording. Here is clearly drawn how the blood diamond market fuels the horrors in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Sting’s recording, a collaboration with songwriter Dominic James Miller, lacked Griffith’s coy use of the sentimental melody to spring the song’s warning against allowing romantic sentiment to cloud a consumer choice that could inadvertently contribute to bloodshed. Perhaps a mash-up of Grace Griffith’s vocal set against super-model Naomi Campbell’s testimony at the World Court trial of Liberia’s leader Charles Taylor (alleged to have been the supplier of weaponry and mercenaries to Sierra Leone’s more barbaric combatants) on how she came to receive a pouch of rough diamonds from Charles Taylor might highlight the multiple terrors including that of denial and business-as-usual beneath the elegantly suggestive song’s surface.

Straw’s sequencing of Grace Griffith’s tracks shows a feel for musical flow as Marcy Marxer’s nuanced arrangement of Jane Siberry’s “Bound by the Beauty” feels organically of a piece with Connemara’s “Ripples In the Rockpool’s/Kiss of the Fiddle,” Richard Fariña’s “Swallow Song,” and the spritely banjo-upright bass-guitar-fiddle turn on Appalachian standard “The Cuckoo.” Two more tracks from Connemara’s 1996 release Siren Song round out the set, with a very brief a cappella solo of “The Last Leviathan” drawing from a 1990 collaborative recording that Griffith was asked to make with Susan Graham White. Taken together with Griffith’s solo debut Every Hue and Shade that includes Berkeley songwriter and eco liturgist Betsy Rose’s “Water, Fire & Smoke,” Sailing should increase appreciation for an artist whose voice has heretofore impressed other artists (including, quite famously, Eva Cassidy) more than the national audience. Our ever coarsening culture of distraction could sure use her centered calm and focus.

—Mitch Ritter (Beaverton, OR)

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