‘It’s always good to scare yourself half to death,” said Patty Griffin as she stood alone with a guitar on stage, no band to protect her. Though it’s been years since she’s played full shows entirely solo, she need hardly have worried. Saturday was the first of two consecutive nights at Club Passim that together sold out in four — count ’em, four — minutes. Some in the audience admitted to becoming Passim members solely to buy tickets. She would have had to screw up pretty badly to let anyone down.
Suffice it to say, Griffin had little trouble winning over the room. With few obstructions, it was easy to focus on a richly textured voice with the character for country music but with a heavier drawl in place of a twang (perhaps a result of growing up in Maine). As a result, she sang as though she wasn’t done chewing on her words, which worked wonders on the fierce desperation of “Making Pies” and “Poor Man's House” and the soft but strong conviction of Hank Williams’s “House of Gold.”
Stripping down also foregrounded Griffin’s songs themselves, sharp character sketches whose surface modesty often belied a piercing heart. But despite delicate and heartfelt songs like “Railroad Wings” and “Up to the Mountain” — maybe as great a modern gospel song as any — she also let loose with earthy grit. The dark gospel blues of “Flaming Red” lurched and stomped, while the locomotive strum of “If I Had My Way” was joined by the heavy click of her boot against the stage. As for the lustful folk waltz “Get Ready Marie,” Griffin noted, “It's very hard to write a song about sex and your grandparents.”
With a new album, titled “American Kid,” scheduled for next year, Griffin took the opportunity to introduce a handful of new songs unsurprisingly as strong as her more familiar material. The title song offered an empathetic portrait, and she faced bitter truths on “The Promises I Made.” “Go Wherever You Want to Go,” meanwhile, possessed the simplicity and uplift of heaven-minded folk. If they provided an accurate preview of what’s to come, it was one more indication that Griffin has nothing to be afraid of.
With a voice marrying Suzanne Vega’s tone with Brandi Carlile’s facility, opener Amy Cook infused her own solo-acoustic material with a warm generosity of spirit.