LIVE REVIEW / This song needs no introduction . . .: Jasper Rees reviews the folk-singer Nanci Griffith in concert at the Reading Hexagon

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The Independent Culture
IN HIS annual descent on the Albert Hall, Eric Clapton this year ushered audiences through a potted history of the blues. Not a lot of popular music warrants academic treatment, but blues is one brand that does and folk is another. Never mind that much of her audience at the Reading Hexagon, gathered for a quiet night out, would have first come across her on the not wholly didactic Radio 2: Nanci Griffith is adroitly positioning herself as the performer with a PhD in folk music.

All the same, would someone close to her please keep her clear of the actual lecture hall? Maybe it's a hangover from those long years alone on the road, when she had to find some way of performing all night, but the growth of her repertoire has not remotely diminished her chattiness between songs. She and the Blue Moon Orchestra played for over 90 minutes, and at least 15 of those were not devoted to music. 'This next, song' is the phrase you least want to hear from Griffith's tinkling lil' ole Minnie Mouse voice, because it means that the song in question lurks some way off on the other side of a wandering preamble.

This time round at least she has an excuse, because a good half of the set comes from her new album, Other Voices, Other Rooms, a potted tutorial in folk music to which she contributed not one of her own songs. Introductions were necessary. The irony of a long-established singer-songwriter having her biggest success with a bunch of covers would not have been lost on Griffith, who usually has to hand her tunes over to higher-profile country chanteuses before they chart. Was that a hint of pique in her announcement that 'Listen to the Radio' and 'Outbound Plane' were big hits for Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss?

Even though nobody could sing her old standards more lustily than Griffith did here, the prevailing mood of the evening, from audience to performer and from performer to music, is one of hushed reverence. 'Y'all so quiet,' she said, but look who's talking. The current size of her band gives some indication of how big a player Griffith is in Britain nowadays, but rarely can a nine-piece perming five voices, four guitars, two percussionists, one piano and one cello have emitted such a restrained set of noises.

Folk-songs, usually written for guitar and voice, have that sort of effect. From the pantheon of the genre came a procession of muted masterpieces - the late Kate Wolf's 'Across the Great Divide', Tom Paxton's 'Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound', Ralph McTell's 'From Clare to Here'. As is inevitably the way, the more familiar the song the longer and louder the applause. John Prine's 'Speed of the Sound Of Loneliness' ran in a close second to Dylan's 'Boots of Spanish Leather'. The stormiest reception awaited 'Gulf Coast Highway' and 'It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go', leaving Griffith in no doubt that what people had really come to hear was her own.

Nanci Griffith's tour of Great Britain and Ireland continues until 3 July