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Griffin ethereal, Kelly heartfelt in gorgeous night of music

Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Mass., April 9, 2019

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Angelic and ethereal were two words that come readily to mind and were most appropriate to describe the sounds coming from Patty Griffin. In song after song, Griffin was exceedingly easy on the ears in a gorgeous setting that matched her voice.

Despite the lovely wooden décor that filled the Harvard University space, one could just as well have closed their eyes and still experienced Griffin at her finest.

She let her voice do the talking in the opening "What I Remember" from her new disc, coming off like a torch singer.

Griffin tended to keep the pace mid-tempo, but she also turned up a few notches early on with a fine reading of the gritty, country- and blues-flavored "The Wheel." She would also incorporate folk, blues, Celtic ("Boys From Tralee") and gospel ("Heavenly Day") sounds into the mix, never content to ride one genre.

Griffin performed as a trio for most of the night with guitarist David Pulkingham quite sharp on acoustic guitar and Conrad Choucroun manning bass and drums, sometimes at the same time. Pulkingham, who has been with Griffin for six years, offered lots of rootsy-styled, atmospheric-oriented guitar lines.

For Griffin, this was a coming home of sorts. A native of Maine, who lives in Austin for more than two decades, Griffin also spent time in the Boston area. Matter of fact, she talked about answering phones at Harvard where the rude callers would be disconnected.

No one had any trouble connecting with Griffin on this evening. A voice like that can carry you far.

Ruston Kelly was an excellent opener with his brand of Americana music. It wasn't quite country and not quite folk. Call him a student of the school of John Prine. Kelly, who released the very fine "Dying Star" last September, is ultra personal in his songs.

He certainly did not shy away from past troubles of drug addiction in a number of songs, singing with his scuffed up voice in a new song that "the first time I did morphine, it felt pretty good." He also gave credit to his father, TK, who accompanied him on acoustic guitar and pedal steel to excellent, for sticking by him.

And he also knows a thing or two about country music history because he offered a few answer songs to his wife, Kacey Musgraves (her current single "Rainbow" and a lot of her "Golden Hour" album are paeans to Kelly), thanking her in return. This was very heartfelt and never schmaltzy.

Fortunately, not everything was so darn serious. Kelly had fun with the crowd wondering whether one of the towering white statues at the side of the stage was "TJ" as in Thomas Jefferson (it wasn't) before opining about Jefferson being a good president and then deciding he was bowing out of politics for the night.

Kelly played several new songs during his 35-minute set, and they held up just as well as the lead-off song of the night "Cover My Tracks" and later "Mockingbird" from "Dying Star." In his second outing in the Boston area in less than six months, Kelly demonstrated that life may not always be easy, but at least in his hands, the music sure was.