Patty Griffin’s A Kiss in Time is a warm, intimate affair recorded live at Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium. And I almost wrote it off before listening. I will confess to a certain ambivalence about female folkies who strum acoustic guitars and sing earnestly about love and heartbreak, which Patty does again and again on this album. Visions of Joans, from Baez to Osborne, dance slowly, ever so slowly through my head, and I question how much more a jaded, bored folkie heart can take. But I listened, and I was wrong. Patty Griffin pulls it off. It surely helps to have a back catalogue of superb songs and a voice for the ages.
Buddy Miller plays swamp guitar on a couple tracks, and wife Julie and the omnipresent Emmylou Harris add their pristine harmonies on a couple more. But this is Patty’s show, and the dozen songs here—culled fairly equally from Patty’s three studio albums—showcase both a soulful, passionate delivery that cuts to the bone and a fine eye for the little details that bring the most shopworn themes to life. The highlights for me are the three “name” songs from Patty’s sometimes overly busy rock album Flaming Red—“Christina,” “Tony,” and “Mary”—which are stripped down here and laid bare, revealing surprising beauty and heartache. But there are memorable performances throughout, from the pensive opener “Long Ride Home,” which finds the narrator alone with her regrets after burying her husband of forty years, to the astonishing closer “Nobody’s Crying,” a send-off to a lover that wraps its melancholy around a poetic chorus of irrepressible hope.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that Griffin’s performance is almost too flawless. Aside from the reworked Flaming Red tracks, hearing these spare, letter-perfect renditions of songs already available on spare, letter-perfect studio albums doesn’t offer many surprises. But it’s a minor quibble. Possessed of a remarkably rich, powerhouse voice capable of conveying sorrow, yearning, strength, and vulnerability, all within the same song, Patty Griffin can re-record her best songs any time, and this bored folkie heart will be happy to listen. The accompanying DVD, which compiles Patty’s musings about life on the road, a couple live performances, and videos for the songs “Rain” and “Chief,” is a nice touch. But the marvelous voice and the powerful songs are still the main attraction. A Kiss in Time is a snapshot of an artist at the top of her game.