SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — There really is no place to put Nanci Griffith, except maybe on the A-list of singer-songwriters.
The Texas-bred pop-folk-country performer's show Tuesday night at the Coach House ranged from stately pop anthems extolling peace and brotherhood (or decrying lack of same), to folk-tinged reveries about past times lost or recaptured, to a fun-loving hillbilly stomp through the normally somber Rolling Stones number "No Expectations."
It was fairly pointless to look for a unifying strand, unless one was willing to consider the consistent loveliness of Griffith's voice and material as common denominator. There was a wistful Emmylou Harris prettiness to much of Griffith's performance. At one point she mentioned that she and Harris are friends who were listening to old records together a while back; she wasn't dropping a famous name, but explaining how they both decided to include the same Kate Wolf song "Across the Great Divide," in their stage repertoires.
The main difference between the two is that Griffith doesn't ache quite so deeply as Harris--not because of a lack of feeling, but because of a certain steadfastness that comes through in her sorrowful numbers. Harris can seem about to break under the sheer weight of sadness in her songs. Griffith projects an acceptance of heartbreak, coupled with a determination to move ahead despite it.
While there is no mistaking that Harris is a country singer, even when she is taking on material with pop origins, Griffith bounces through and across genres. That made for some jarring juxtapositions in her nearly two-hour concert. Even a show that jumps across styles can have unity and a sense of organized flow to it; Griffith's was sometimes needlessly choppy, especially in the early going.
"Heaven," a gauzy, sweetly innocent Julie Gold-penned pop daydream about perfect love, was followed by the brawny "Outbound Plane," a country rocker with big, resounding chords that called up visions of the Who taking "Baba O'Reilly" on an outing to Nashville. Then came some more quiet stuff--including "Gulf Coast Highway," which, with its chorus about dreams of heaven as a reward for enduring hard times on earth, might have been more sensibly placed next to the Julie Gold tune. Then the cycle repeated: the exuberant "Ford Econoline" roared into view, followed, in a particularly abrupt segue, by a deep-blue Tom Waits ballad, "San Diego Serenade."
Griffith's six-member Blue Moon Orchestra was distracting at times, crowding her voice with a dense, layered, bottom-heavy sound (female backup singer Lee Satterfield, however, was always on target with fine close-harmony support). Griffith isn't the most precise enunciator of lyrics, so at times it was hard to follow what she was singing.
Later, Griffith did create a sustained reflective mood in songs that featured simplicity and clarity in the playing and linkage in her themes.
The long, satisfying, eight-song sequence began with a simple, lilting country lament, "I Wish It Would Rain." It went on with nice pairings that created a dialogue between songs: "Across the Great Divide," a sweetly aching song about lost loves that can't be recouped, was followed by "There's a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret)," in which Griffith sings about struggling to withstand the tug of change while keeping alive a long-term friendship.
A while later, Griffith picked up the tempo with the jaunty "Listen to the Radio," about running from a bad situation with high hopes for something better; then she subsided to the stately "Late Night Grande Hotel," which examines the costs of running from ties that perhaps should not be broken.
The main set ended, predictably, with the anthems "From a Distance" and "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go," both beautifully sung, but with arrangements that were a bit self-consciously grand. After that, Griffith's rip-roaring encore reworking of "No Expectations," with lead vocals and instrumental solos flung bluegrass-style from band member to band member, was as unexpected and delightful as a surprise party.
Griffith, who wore a simple dark dress, had an unassuming but witty stage style. She made some sweetly barbed comments about the august heads on the Senate Judiciary Committee and ended the night by urging: "Remember, friends don't let friends drive Republican" (which, in GOP-dominated Orange County, could turn the freeways into open ranges).
Introducing "Heaven," Griffith predicted wryly that it would end up a big hit for Bette Midler--just like "From a Distance," the last Julie Gold song that Griffith introduced to the world.
The near-capacity house gave Griffith the sort of adoring reception that high-quality cult artists whose songs deeply touch people can take as partial compensation for not being household names. It wouldn't be an injustice if "Heaven" proved to be a hit with Griffith's own name on it.
Tom Kimmel offered a striking vocal blend in his seven-song opening set--part Springsteenian burr, part Roger McGuinn-like reedy tremble, and a measure of Roy Orbison's dramatic reach.
Kimmel was a humble, sincere sort who also managed to drop a few quips between songs. While he wasn't exactly original in style, theme, or lyrical approach, Kimmel's rich melodies and fervent delivery won over an audience that knew little or nothing about him. Griffith helped out with harmonies on the closing tune.