Nanci Griffith,
Winter Marquee
(Rounder, 2002)

On one of the hottest days of the year, what better to do than to listen to an album titled Winter Marquee? It doesn't hurt that this disc, Nanci Griffith's first live recording since 1988, features some of her stronger compositions from the past along with covers that she's more or less made her own over the years. Recorded with the Blue Moon Orchestra while promoting her most recent studio release, Clock Without Hands, Griffith captures the intimacy of her live show on CD.

Griffith's unique voice and gentle stage manner may appear just too nice at first, but as this recording suggests, it seems to be the genuine article. The opening track, her cover of John Prine's "The Speed of Loneliness," features an earnest voice along with James Hooker's keyboards. This song is one that Griffith has performed so many times that she's pretty much made it her own. She lets loose on the closing song, Townes van Zandt's "White Freight Liner," and Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather" is another number that she has taken and styled as if it's her own composition.

Perhaps that's because her own writing sparks comparisons with some of the stronger singer-songwriters working today. Griffith went through a period in the '90s when her new releases were not receiving the top-notch reviews that previous recordings earned. This album, however, takes some of her best songs from 1983 through 2001, including "There's a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret)" (1983), "Gulf Coast Highway" (1988), "The Flyer" (1994) and "Traveling Through This Part of You" (2001).

Perhaps the CD's highlight is her cover of Phil Ochs' "What's That I Hear," the song that inspired the whole project. It had been years, Griffith states in the CD booklet, since she performed that number live. In order to have a live version of that one song, they began recording the shows. Despite the fact Griffith learned the song years ago from the television show Guitar Lessons with Miss Laura, Ochs' anthem about freedom seems an appropriate theme song for Griffith. Her songs don't tend to be overtly political, despite "Traveling Through This Part of You," about a Vietnam vet and written for her ex-husband. However, her association with organizations such as Campaign for a Landmine Free World, as mentioned in the CD booklet, more than hints at her personal inclinations.

Lowlights? There's little conversation between songs. She introduces Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, but she doesn't go into why she included good friend's Julie Gold's "Good Night, New York." Listeners need to remember that this album was recorded post-September 11. But that's little fault with an album that could easily serve as a best-of-artist selection.

- Rambles
written by Ellen Rawson
published 13 September 2003

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