by Steven Pisano
The Lincoln Center Out of Doors season ends each year with the "Roots of American Music Weekend: Americanafest," sponsored by the Americana Music Association. Saturday night's concert featured Patty Griffin, a folk singer originally from Maine now living in Texas, and Yola, an emerging country-soul singer from Bristol, UK.
Griffin has been recording for over 20 years, and her 10th album, the self-released Patty Griffin, came out in March. For those unfamiliar with Griffin, the closest comparison I can make is Emmylou Harris, but that comparison only goes so far. There are strong undercurrents in Griffin's music that derive from traditional Irish and Scottish music, and even when her lyrics aren't overtly religious, there's a gospel truth to many of her songs. Indeed, she's been nominated four times for a Best Folk Album Grammy Award and has never won; she's won two Grammys in the Gospel category.
Griffin and her small but resourceful backing band played a long set that satisfied fans and won over new converts, on one of the most gorgeous nights of the summer. If only New York weather could always be like this! She got the crowd on her side early on with "Boys from Tralee" from the new album, about Irish immigrants who were able to find safe haven and a new life in America - a non-oblique reference to the immigration crisis on the U.S. southern border.
Other songs touched on her recent battle with breast cancer and other goings-on tangentially from her life, but Griffin is not a purely autobiographical singer like many folk singer-songwriters. Instead, she finds universal truth in her own experience, which is why people feel such an affinity for her music.
Yola, who opened the night, has been getting a lot of attention the past year. Born Yolanda Quartey, she had previously been a singer and back-up singer for Bristol bands Massive Attack and Phantom Limb, neither of which anyone would confuse for Americana. But at heart, she was a country girl. Yola's mother had a collection of American country music records, and one of her favorites was Dolly Parton's "Jolene." So, she pursued a new solo career singing in a style that if not true to her roots by birth, was truer to her spirit.
Yola has a big voice, able to belt out a song with the best of them when she wants to. But, she can also go in close and personal, singing with a breathy intimacy that surprises you after she just knocked your ears off. An EP she made a few years ago made some ripples, but her 2019 full-length debut, Walk Through Fire, produced by Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys, has garnered praise from many quarters.
The audience fell in love with her right away, almost as if she were the headliner. And she may very well be so if she keeps winning hearts the way she did at this show.
Sunday's closing performance of Lincoln Center Out of Doors featured David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, The Byrds, and other bands), with Anaïs Mitchell, who just won a Tony Award for Best Musical as the composer for Hadestown.
More photos can be found here.