Patty Griffin at The Athenaeum / by Doyle Armbrust

Had the cataclysmic storm prophesied by meteorologists last night brought with it a violent flood, it's unlikely Patty Griffin fans would have taken notice till the waters reached chin-level. Touring in support of American Kid, her first album of original material in more than six years, the Maine-born singer-songwriter made quick work of selling out the Athenaeum Theatre, and the venue proved a cozy harbor for her poignant and vital brand of Americana.Hailing from Taos, New Mexico, opener Max Gomez drew back the curtains with deft and often thunderous finger-picking. You can plan on hearing the solo guitarist's earnest songwriting and formidable chops on an episode-closing TV drama some day soon, but Gomez was at his most compelling with his tender cover of John Hartford's timeless "In Tall Buildings."

Taking the stage alongside tour-mates Craig Ross (American Kid co-producer, bass, omnichord), David Pulkingham (guitar) and John Dedrick (piano, accordion), Griffin slipped right into a languid version of "Carry Me" from her 1998 album Flaming Red. Delicate, single-note piano fills from Dedrick's grand gleamed above the astral wash provided by Ross. The band's sensitive orchestration throughout the evening kept the focus unequivocally on the voice, ramping up at key moments such as the particularly taut acoustic guitar solo from Pulkingham on "Faithful Son." Judging by the frequency of fingers darting up to damp eyes during the performance, Griffin's balladry has played soundtrack to a not an insignificant number of personal heartbreaks, memorials and celebrations.

A tip of the hat is due as well to the tour's sound engineer who constructed one of the more sumptuous and unclouded mixes I've heard in recent years. As one of the superlative lyric-writers alive, Griffin's delivery is every bit as persuasive as her poetry. Syllables are often halted momentarily, drawing the listener forward before the remainder of the word is unfurled. "Songs like Wild Old Dog" and "Gonna Miss You When You're Gone" are positively devastating through this particular set of vocal chords.

The approach is anything but resigned, despite the often melancholic subject matter, as evidenced by the bayou groove and lyric sneer of "Don't Let Me Die in Florida" or the turbulent strumming of solo number "No Bad News."

"I wrote that when I wasn't crazy about my boyfriend…or my President," she said. The only dips in the evening were the responsibility of two or three fatuous audience members yammering out song requests. "Don't worry," the singer responded. "We've got a plan up here."

- Doyle Armbrust

Originally published in Time Out Chicago's #Chicago blog on June 13th, 2013