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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Singer-Songwriter Griffith Is All Grown Up

February 25, 1988|STEVE HOCHMAN

To twist Bob Dylan's line, Texas-bred singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith looks and speaks like a little girl but she writes, sings and performs just like a mature, thoughtful woman, as she proved Tuesday at the Roxy.

Griffith's songs make fine use of both her voice (at times reminiscent of Emmylou Harris) and her writerly sense of time and place, reflecting her love for such Southern authors as Larry McMurtry and Eudora Welty, while she charmed the enthusiastic crowd with between-song stories and reflections that would hold their own alongside those of Russell Baker.

As the title of her opening song put it, Griffith is a delightful chronicler of "The Lone Star State of Mind."

But for all her little girl looks and literary leanings, Griffith should not be written off as a country Suzanne Vega. This is a woman who grew up in honky-tonks, and Tuesday--with backing from her four-piece Blue Moon Orchestra--she offered a range of styles from gorgeous, wistful folk ("Little Love Affairs," the title song from her current album) to charged-up country-rock. What's more, all the songs pass the ultimate test of country music: They'd sound great coming from a radio in a pickup truck cruising down the Texas Panhandle.

As would the music of opening band New Grass Revival, a long-standing, progressive country favorite fronted by mandolinist Sam Bush--though it's not clear how the truck's driver would take to the quartet's eclecticism. Essentially an acoustic country-rock outfit with well-developed bluegrass chops, the Revival's set included winning stabs at country gospel (featuring the astounding voice of bassist John Cowan), Celtic flavored instrumentals (written by banjoist Bela Fleck) and even a couple of dabs of reggae (blue ganja ?). And for the coup de blue gras : a surprisingly punchy and soulful encore of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar."

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