By Whitney Pastorek
Updated February 07, 2007 at 09:51 PM EST
Credit: Brad Barket/Getty Images

Yesterday marked the release of Patty Griffin’s fifth studio album, Children Running Through — okay, it’s her seventh album, if you count the ones that never got released — and to mark the occasion, she played a long, luxuriously beautiful set for Artists Den at the Angel Orensanz Center, a converted synagogue on NYC’s Lower East Side. And even though it was like half a degree outside, PopWatchers, I put you in my pocket, and you were there! (Check out a few picks on Flickr.) Trust me: You had a very good time.

I hadn’t been down to the AOC since shortly after September 11th (when I saw David Byrne and Lydia Davis at some sort of McSweeney’s thing), so I was relieved to see it still standing, and all lit up in pinks and blues for what we quickly learned was a high-definition TV broadcast being taped of the show. We learned this because the minute we walked in, we were handed pieces of paper saying something about “our image” and “perpetuity.” I tried to look pretty.

Patty’s opening act was Allison Moorer, whose pedigree is as impressive as they come — sister to Shelby Lynne, married to Steve Earle — and whose warm Tennessee voice reached the rafters on songs like “Fairweather” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” She played solo acoustic, but the way she held the stage reminded me a lot of the way I stumbled across Patty herself, this gorgeous girl with a giant guitar who opened for Shawn Colvin at the Beacon here in NYC, and belted out that set for all she was worth.

I’m pretty sure Patty’s voice — oh, btw, it’s never “Griffin’s voice”; she is, eternally, Patty — should be registered as some sort of national treasure, all clear and piercing and goose-bump-inducing. After walking out to a standing ovation from the very Patty-friendly audience, she opened with a nightclubby take on Sam Cooke’s “Get Yourself Another Fool,” and throughout the night, she and the band jumped from genre to genre with ease. She’s kept longtime collaborator Doug Lancio close by, and his guitar can go from blues to country to crunchy rock and back again in a heartbeat; with touring percussionist Michael Longoria, bassist JD Foster, new backup singer and stand-up bass player/cellist Bryn Davies (who kicks ass), keyboardist Ian McLagan, and a string quartet, the night transformed from what looked like a casual improv session into a sweeping, swelling, fully-orchestrated concert, the kind people go to real live theaters to see. In fact, last night’s “Top of the World” rendition rivaled the one I saw the Dixie Chicks do during their comparatively ginormous show at Madison Square Garden… which is as it should be, seeing as how it’s Patty’s song in the first place.

So the new material is solid stuff, all bluesy and soulful and musically adventurous. She explained the origins behind a couple of the songs: “Trapeze” is from her memories of going to the Shriner’s Circus when she was growing up in small-town Maine; “Burgundy Shoes” is her attempt to write a happy song on a dare, and its plaintive piano melody left me convinced that “happy” is not something she should worry too much about; and “Heavenly Day” is what she calls her “very first love song.” (It’s written for her dog.) My nominee for Best New Track last night? “No Bad News,” a straight-up barnburner that she rocked through on her trusty Gibson with the band playing percussion behind her. I got the feeling that if they’d had tambourines for the rest of us, we could have taken a couple coats of paint off the walls.

She didn’t do a whole lot of old-school, but what we got was great: a molasses-thick “Standing,” a bouncy “Love Throws a Line,” and the scrumptious layer cake of “When It Don’t Come Easy” (all off her last album, Impossible Dream); the aforementioned “Top of the World” (No. 1 on List of Songs That Make Whitney’s Hair-Trigger Tear Ducts Go Crazy); and then a twofer of first-album gems, “Sweet Lorraine” and “You Never Get What You Want.” Maybe it’s because it’s how I first saw her, but I’m a sucker for those early acoustic numbers — the way what comes out of her guitar is what’s also coming out of her gut, all those chunky chords and angry notes and stompy feet. “You first found me in my holding pen / Stopped to take a look and stuck your finger in / I bit one off and you came back again and again…” I guarantee I would have loved those words even had I not been particularly crabby in 1996.

Couple last things: It bears mentioning that I have never once seen this woman in concert where she did not forget the words and/or chords to a song, and that these problems persist. Luckily for her, 1) she knows this is something she does, and last night (as she forgot the words to “Moon Song”), she speculated that she’s counting on the fact that we find it endearing, and 2) we do find it endearing. Or at least I do. One of my proudest moments is still the time she was playing the dearly departed Fez nightclub a while back, totally went up on the words to “Forgiveness,” and — like the dork I am — I hollered out the next line on cue. Sigh. Yes. Dork, dork, dork. The second thing is this: If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing this woman’s work, I cannot implore you enough to check it out. When she lets loose on a note, it is the greatest sound in the world. (Special to the dude sitting behind me yelling out “Chief!!” for the last half of the show: I know why you want to hear that song, but she’s not going to do it, and that is not an appropriate song to yell out in this context. That’s like going to an R.E.M. show and begging for “Cuyahoga.”)

Patty is not just for the ladies or the folkies — you name a genre and I will point you to one of her songs that lives in it. And while I selfishly hope she’ll record another full-on rock record someday, the unclassifiably rich sound she’s developed for Children will certainly suffice. Therefore, because last night was the sort of joyous, communal, powerful experience I have come to expect from a woman who ranks Top 3 in my musical artist hierarchy, I am proud to give this show a 9 on the PopWatch concert ratings scale. The one thing that held it back from getting a U2-at-Irving-Plaza-style perfect score? I don’t like sitting down for shows. And I don’t think I like my image being used in perpetuity; something about a camera in the face takes me out of the moment a bit. Still, small price to pay for a great show; highly recommended if she’s coming to your town.