Patty Griffin never expected to make a gospel record. In fact, she figured that “Wiggley Fingers” from her 1998 release Flaming Red effectively ruined any chance she might have had; after all she is a self-described “lapsed Catholic.”
But with Downtown Church, her new collection of spiritual standards (and a couple of originals) she proves she has the soul and the pipes to dabble in the music of Sunday morning services and stained glass windows like the ones in Nashville’s beautiful Downtown Presbyterian Church where she recorded the album.
Opening with Hank Williams’ House of Gold, a classic southern gospel tunes which accompanies We Shall All Be Reunited and Never Grow Old from the Alfred G. Karnes songbook. While she doesn’t stray very far from the original arrangements, the vocals are delicate and true as if she’s singing a prayer.
In an homage to one of her favorite groups, The Staple Singers (it was after recording Waiting for My Child with Mavis for Oh, Happy Day that she was approached by EMI’s Peter York with the suggestion for the album), there’s Wade In The Water with Regina McCrary and Mike Farris on backing vocals and If I Had My Way, a traditional based on Samson and Delilah.
The sparse percussion track and slightly eerie vocals from the McCrary sisters make Death’s Got A Warrant stand out and if the powerful Move Up doesn’t give you shivers and get you up and dancing, well nothing will (we can’t wait to see it performed live on one of the newly announced tour dates).
The two originals blend perfectly with the covers feeling like they come from a newly discovered A.P. Carter notebook. Little Fire features Emmylou Harris’ exquisite harmonies while Coming Home To Me has an elegant piano melody and Julie Miller’s unmistakable voice.
The Lieber & Stoller composition I Smell A Rat is a fun, gritty Saturday-night “done me wrong” counterpoint and a tribute to Big Mama Thornton.
The Spanish Virgen de Guadalupe with Raul Malo however is a little awkward and perhaps the space would have been better filled with “J’irai La Voir Un Jour,” a French tune that Patty learned from her Acadian grandmother as a child.
And with the amazing closing track, All Creatures of God and King (a hymn attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi) she leaves no doubt about her ability to push the boundaries of her musical style.
Downtown Church was produced by Buddy Miller and also features Jim Lauderdale, Stuart Duncan, Dennis Crouch, Jay Bellerose, Doug Lancio and Shawn Colvin.
Download Downtown Church on iTunes.