Not long ago, folk singer Nanci Griffith was getting ready to perform a benefit concert in Oregon to raise money to defeat a petition that most liberal-hearted souls agreed was hate-mongering and bigotry. As she sat in her trailer waiting to perform, the words and music to a new song came to her.
By the time of the concert, she had written - and performed that same day - "The Time of Inconvenience," a powerfully moving song about discrimination that nestles comfortably with other Nanci Griffith classics like "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go" and "Gulf Coast Highway."The good news for Nanci Griffith fans is that "Inconvenience" is on a new album scheduled for release in mid-September. The bad news is that Sunday night's outdoor concert at Red Butte Gardens seemed abbreviated and occasionally erratic.
Fighting a glaring setting sun that clearly sapped her energy, Griffith turned in a 90-minute set that started out as passionate and inspiring and ended rather perfunctorily - even a doggedly persistent crowd standing and chanting "Nanci, Nanci, Nanci" could not lure her back to the stage.
The concert started out with Nanci's brilliant version of Julie Gold's "From a Distance" - a rendition far more powerful than the more popularized and long-since-worn-out versions of the same song.
From there, it was "Trouble in the Fields" - complete with a now-familiar story about Texas and her uncle who dropped dead in his 90s while mowing his lawn - and "Listen to the Radio," a trademark song about following your dreams while keeping the radio tuned to friends like Loretta Lynn.
Griffith's ability to reach into the heart was illustrated by her remake of Kate Wolf's "Across the Great Divide" - a song guaranteed to raise goose bumps on all who listen to the power of words and voice. Following the adult lullaby "Always Will" (from her forthcoming album "Flier"), Nanci's performance quickly lost steam.
Her cover of Townes Van Zant's "Tecumseh Valley" was good but not moving, and her cover of John Prine's "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" was less-than-inspiring. As was her "Southbound Plane."
Nanci recovered a bit with a new twist on her timeless "Love at the Five and Dime." As her story now goes, Nanci was sitting at the Woolworth's counter in Kansas City when a woman from Nebraska approached her wondering how in the world Nanci could have written the song about her and her husband since they had never met Nanci before.
As Nanci explained it, she no longer sings the song about the individuals who inspired it, but rather a couple in Nebraska for whom the song was meant to be. They, after all, gave it a whole new life and meaning.
From there, Nanci seemed to race through "Are You Tired of Me My Darling," an 1877 folk song, and the title track to her new album, which was inspired by an Air Force pilot she met on a flight to London. She ended the show with the classics "Gulf Coast Highway" and "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go," both of which were good but lacked the emotional punch fans have come to expect.
Nanci returned for a brief encore that included "Ford Econoline" and "This Heart" - the first single from her new album. But all the cheering and chanting and coaxing could not lure her back for any of the favorites for which she has become known and loved.
As most would agree, Nanci was certainly good even on a blistering summer evening. But her performance was far from the emotional perfection fans have come to expect.