Three Singer-Songwriters Stick to the Tried and True

Upwardly mobile musicians get a little help from friends

Nanci Griffith has long defied attempts to musically pigeonhole her. The singer has had a career in which she has been marketed as a folk, country, and now, thanks to the efforts of Elektra Records, pop singer. Whatever her billing, she has always made emotional, thoughtful music. With perhaps her finest album currently on the charts, ``Flyer,'' she seems poised for the commercial success that has eluded her. As part of her current tour, she recently performed a week in New York at, of all places, a Broadway theater. There, she gave stirring renditions of most of the songs on the new album, as well as selections from her previous ones.

Griffith's music can be somewhat ethereal at times, but in concert she gave the songs a tougher edge, sometimes almost veering into rock-and-roll with her energetic delivery and physical exuberance. But the strength of the material lies in the delicate melodies and insightful lyrics. ``Flyer'' contains her most personal music, and yet, also some of her most accessible. A virtual all-star cast of pop musicians joins her on the recording, including U2's Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton, the Indigo Girls, the Bodeans, Counting Crow's Adam Duritz, and Mark Knopfler.

In concert, Griffith had to do without this stellar backup, but the six-person Blue Moon Orchestra was all she needed to help her deliver her songs with punch and power. Wisely varying the ballads with more up-tempo numbers, the singer, wearing an ``LBJ for President'' button and speaking with a distinctive Texas twang, performed 20-odd songs, including her own material and covers from such songwriters as John Prine and Townes Van Zandt. A delightful surprise was her rocking take on the Beatles's ``Things We Said Today.''

The highlights included a moving ``Nobody's Angel,'' from the new album, with guitarist Frank Christian making a guest appearance, and a beautiful rendition of her early song ``There's a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret).''

Although Shawn Colvin's first two albums consisted of original material, fans of her live shows know that she has spent much of her career performing cover versions of others' songs. Her new album, ``Cover Girl'' (Columbia), consists solely of cover versions of songs both famous and obscure. Performing recently to a rapturous audience at Carnegie Hall as part of her nationwide tour, which continues through Dec. 10, Colvin sang material from the new album (half of which was recorded live).

Unlike most singers who record albums of cover versions, Colvin is smart enough to have included a lot of unfamiliar material. The big exception is the album's opener, Sting's ``Every Little Thing (He) Does is Magic,'' which also got the concert off to a rollicking start. She also quickly displayed her sense of humor: ``I wrote that one, of course,'' she deadpanned. ``I'm pretty proud of it.''

Performing with her trio (her summer tour was a solo excursion), Colvin displayed a voice that has seemed to reach new strengths and a surprising virtuosity on her guitar. Although her versions are somewhat weak on lyrical expressiveness, she delivered solid, often interesting versions of songs that have been unjustly neglected, including material by Tom Waits (``The Heart of Saturday Night''), Steve Earle (``Someday''), Jimmy Webb (``If These Walls Could Speak''), and others.

Sometimes she gave the songs a greater intensity, as with her version of Bob Dylan's ``You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,'' while at other times she provided interesting counterpoints to the original versions, such as her stripped-down, acoustic take on the Talking Heads' ``This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).''

Making a surprise guest appearance was Mary Chapin Carpenter (who also performs on the album), who joined in for harmony on two songs, including Greg Brown's sweetly melodic ``One Cool Remove.''

The pair cavorted onstage like a couple of college kids, musically spoofing such movies as ``The Piano'' and ``Four Weddings and a Funeral,'' and generally bantering. ``So, how did you get to Carnegie Hall,'' Colvin asked her guest. ``Through you,'' was the reply. The audience ate it up.

`Look at me, I've got a bad reputation,'' sings Freedy Johnston on his new, critically acclaimed record, ``This Perfect World.''

In reality the reverse is true. This singer-songwriter, who rates more than few comnparisons to Bob Dylan, has just landed on a major label (Elektra), after two earlier albums on independent ones. Johnston is finally beginning to get the reputation he deserves. Songwriting this sophisticated and this powerful is not very common in the rock world.

In a recent concert as part of his current tour, Johnston demonstrated that his talent needs careful nurturing. His material is strongly melodic, and the songs nestle in your head after only a couple of listens. But the power of his songwriting lies in his ruminative, often disturbing double-edged lyrics, most of which were lost in the murky acoustics of the club. Club performances in which the audience stands are also not a particularly good idea. They responded warmly to the more rocking material, but the slower songs produced a restless din.

Still, Johnston provided powerful versions of his best material, including selections from all three albums. He also sang a surprisingly haunting version of Jimmy Webb's ``Wichita Lineman,'' taking the familiar song and delivering it with an aching earnest-ness that rescued it from any vestiges of camp.

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