Sailing onto the stage of the Moore Theater with her own band of brothers and sisters—the four-piece Blue Moon Orchestra—veteran folk-pop singer Nanci Griffith smiles assuredly at the nearly sold-out crowd as she hoists her black acoustic guitar. And why shouldn’t she be confident? This is Seattle after all; a city as politically blue (in more than one sense of the word) as it is meteorologically gray on winter days like this. And the lissome 51-year-old Texas native is about to spend much of her 90-minute set summoning the ghosts of Vietnam and the spectre of present conflicts that shade her latest album, Hearts in Mind (which she dedicates to “the memory of every soldier and every civilian lost to the horrors of war.”) Indeed, Griffith’s anti-war missives—delivered both during and between songs—are warmly embraced by the audience, save for the gentleman seated behind my right ear who grouses audibly at her left-leaning banter. Clearly, he’s here for the music, not the message. And lucky for him, the music takes precedence early on.
Griffith and her band lead the set with “Simple Life,” the breezy, burnished country-pop gem about her mother, which also opens Hearts in Mind; though its chorus includes the line “I don’t want your wars to take my children,” Griffith hones in on the song’s sweet nostalgia and optimism instead, putting as much faith in the plangent lower registers of her voice as she does in her trademark gossamer chirp. “This is a tune about my all-time hero, Loretta Lynn,” she gushes before digging into the buoyant “Listen to the Radio,” which gives James Hooker, Griffith’s longtime pianist and songwriting partner, the first of many opportunities to tickle some boogie out of his keys while the rest of the band engages in frisky strum-and-twang.
Things quickly get weighty, however, as Grifith introduces the somber new song “Heart of Indochine”—about eating dinner on a Saigon riverboat while envisioning the bodies of the dead floating in the water—by explaining she’s spent the last several years traveling through southeast Asia on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans Association of America, supporting landmine removal efforts and trying to help heal old wounds. “It’s a lot better to be out there working toward peace and resolution than fighting wars and blood feuds,” she insists, her allusion to current events eliciting healthy applause (and one loud, aforementioned grumble). “Where are you amongst this madness on the streets of Saigon?” she sings in ‘Traveling Through This Part of You,” a moving number she says “belongs to all of the veterans.” Soon follows “Beautiful,” a spry, sentimental nod to her WWII-vet stepfather who, she notes, is the root of “me becoming a pacifist” (more clapping, another groan).
As the quintet subsequently moves through lighter, and occasionally cloying, new fare like “Love Conquers All,” the zydeco-infused “Before” (penned by bassist LeAnn Etheridge, who provides fantastic vocal harmonies all evening), and “I Love This Town—a duet between Griffith and the wry tune’s writer, Blue Moon guitarist Clive Gregson—the charge in the room weakens noticeably. But spirited, set-closing renditions of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” (“We all need a song like this right now,” Griffith exhorts) and The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations” are enough to get the crowd on its feet and cheering, and—as I glance behind me—even impels Griffith’s vociferous critic to rise from his seat and enthusiastically join in the emphatic standing-O. If only winning hearts and minds could always be so easy.