Songwriters want to be like Patty Griffin, but here’s why she’s one of a kind

Patty Griffin performs at ACL Live on Saturday, April 8, 2017. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

Spend some time talking with women singer-songwriters in Austin across a few years, and it gets hard to find anyone who doesn’t express gratitude to Patty Griffin for helping to inspire their pursuit of music. Griffin, who moved here two decades ago from the Northeast, has become to a generation of indie-folk hopefuls what Jerry Jeff Walker once was to cosmic-cowboy upstarts in the 1970s.

PHOTOS: A-List gallery of Patty Griffin at ACL Live

Yet you wouldn’t necessarily pinpoint that influence if you compared those artists’ music to the full range of what Griffin displays when she takes the stage. Not content from the start to be pegged as the confessional troubadour that her brilliant 1996 debut “Living With Ghosts” portrayed, she set herself apart in the albums that followed by exploring electrified rock, gospel, Spanish-language ballads and more, creating a cumulative identity that simply can’t be duplicated.

Not that she’s forsaken her roots, by any stretch. That was clear from the outset Saturday night at ACL Live, when Griffin took the stage solo acoustic and performed “Mad Mission” off of that very first album. But on the 18 songs that followed, she traversed many moods, genres and approaches to songwriting, much to the delight of a sold-out room not deterred by the concert’s shift to April from its originally booked December 2016 date.

RELATED: Patty Griffin brings it all back home for ‘Servant of Love’

At that point, Griffin had just finished more than a year of touring behind “Servant of Love.” But the four-month break allowed her to stretch out the set list a bit. Though she still played six of the 13 songs from that record, she also touched on songs from seven of her other eight albums, and worked in a brand new tune as well.

Providing versatile support throughout were guitarist David Pulkingham, who switched back and forth between acoustic, electric and nylon-string models; drummer Conrad Choucroun, who stepped out from behind the kit to play bass on a few songs; and bassist Billy Harvey, who occasionally moved to keyboards, piano and a small cigar-box-type guitar. Griffin herself mostly played guitar and piano, though she was radiant on mandolin for “Shine a Different Way,” the closing track on “Servant of Love” and also the finale of Saturday’s concert.

Between songs, Griffin stressed her connection to her home city frequently. “Did you guys all get that cold that was going around town the last four months? I did too,” she lamented, apologizing for any rough spots in her vocal delivery on this night (there were very few). Introducing “250,000 Miles,” a song about immigrants from “Servant of Love,” she says she considers herself an immigrant of sorts as well: “I moved to Austin, Texas, because I wanted to live in a town where I could work.” And near the end of the night, she promised: “I’ll see you out there at the supermarket, buying my carrots. And I’ll see you out there in traffic, too.”

Anais Mitchell opens for Patty Griffin at ACL Live on Saturday, April 8, 2017. Suzanne Cordeiro/ for American-Statesman

Griffin also made a point to praise her opening act, Anais Mitchell, her partner last year (along with fiddler Sara Watkins) on a get-out-the-vote tour that stopped at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall in March 2016. Griffin specifically praised “Hadestown,” a musical theater piece Mitchell has been working on for years, calling it “one of the most beautiful nights of music I ever saw.”

That’s not hard to imagine, given a few “Hadestown” songs Mitchell sprinkled throughout her 45-minute opening set. Especially moving was “Why We Build the Wall,” which has obvious relevance in the Trump era even though, as Mitchell pointed out, she wrote it around 10 years ago. “I didn’t write it about this guy,” she said. “If he happens to resemble Hades, the king of the underworld, that’s not my problem.”

Patty Griffin set list:
1. Mad Mission
2. There Isn’t One Way
3. Gunpowder
4. Faithful Son
5. 250,000 Miles
6. Good and Gone
7. Mama’s Worried (new song)
8. Mother of God
9. Servant of Love
10. Moon Song
11. Don’t Let Me Die in Florida
12. Move Up
13. Death’s Got a Warrant
14. Standing
15. Making Pies
16. Rain
17. No Bad News
Encore:
18. Let Him Fly
19. Shine a Different Way

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