Grace Griffith,
Passing Through
(Blix Street, 2014)

Grace Griffith is a regional legend on the East Coast. Based out of Washington, D.C., she has been singing professionally since the 1980s. She was lead singer for the all-female Celtic band the Hags (when she left that band, Mary Chapin Carpenter replaced her), was half of the duo Hazelwood and leader of the respected Celtic trio Connemara. She also worked as a solo artist and won several Washington Area Music Awards (Wammies) as best female artist in the folk and Celtic categories. In 1995, she signed with Blix Street Records, making five solo albums and two with Connemora for that company. She also recommended that they sign her good friend Eva Cassidy.

She was riding a steady success but in the late '90s all of that changed: Griffith was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease; her condition has been worsening in recent years. Today, she can no longer play guitar, has difficulty walking and her voice has become erratic, hard to control. Since February 2014, she has been living in an assisted living center and, though she has been working when she is able, her career has been largely curtailed.

For the past two years, she has been working on Passing Through, recording whenever she was able. Chris Biondo, who produced the album, says the record started out as an a cappella project -- indeed, two songs on it are done without accompaniment -- but over the years of recording, the decision to bring in instruments was made.

Finally, the finished album is available.

And how is it? In a word, wonderful.

Grace Griffith has always had a haunting soprano voice, pure and crystal-like, with a wealth of overtones. Her illness has perhaps made it harder for her to use her voice -- she had to record in small spurts -- but the purity is still there. You can listen to the album just for the qualities of her voice and have a pleasant experience.

However, there is more to the disc than that. Griffith does not write but she has always chosen her material carefully and well. The songs she selected for Passing Through are adventurous, ranging from traditional Celtic to classic pop to recently composed.

Among the highlights are "Loud are the Bells of Norwich," a ballad based on Julian of Norwich's prayer. The song does not simply celebrate a spiritual experience; as played by Mike Ault on guitar, Larry Melton on bass, Barbara Lamb on violin and Maurice Tifford on cello, with Griffith's vocals, it is a spiritual experience. The prayer is perfectly realized, a deeply felt and beautifully performed piece that will spend a lot of time on your player.

"Brigit's Shield" reunites Griffith with her Hazlewood partner, Susan Graham White, and their magic endures, while "The Wood Thrush's Song" is an a cappella number with background harmonies by Cary Creed, Lynn Hollyfield and Jody Marshall. One of my favorites on the album is Yeats' "Down by the Sally Gardens," which Griffith sings to the Celtic harp accompaniment of Sue Richards.

Regardless of the back story, Passing Through is a fine album. I can't imagine a fan of Celtic music who will not love it.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

30 August 2014

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