Patty Griffin down with religion 

Until recently, lapsed Catholic Patty Griffin defined a religious epiphany as something simple and common, like a good cup of coffee in the morning.

But once she entered Nashville’s 160-year-old Downtown Presbyterian Church — at the urging of her producer Buddy Miller — to record her new all-gospel album “Downtown Church,” the singer definitely saw the light.

“This was a lot of work,” she admits of the weeklong sessions. “I sang six hours a day, so that meant a lot of tea-drinking to keep my voice from freezing up on me. But now I think there are times when a song can be a spiritual experience — just making music, in general, is pretty much that.”

Amen, sister. Griffin — who will gather her Bay Area flock twice next week — sang like she never had before on stirring traditionals like “Move Up,” “Never Grow Old” and “Wade In the Water,” and contributed two soulful originals as well, “Little Fire” and “Coming Home To Me.”

Top-flight talents like Raul Malo, Julie Miller, Emmylou Harris and Ann and Regina McCrary dropped in for duets, giving the project a joyful revival-meeting aura. Surrounded by pews, ornate columns and intricate stained-glass windows, Griffin literally trilled from the pulpit.

At first, Griffin was spooked by the chapel. “It has a really strong feeling, the presence of the past,” she says.

“But I learned a lot about natural reverb in that place, because it’s actually built for your voice to carry. And for a singer that’s just a delight. But a friend of ours stayed there overnight and slept on one of the bafflings, just watching the gear, and I was really nervous for him. So I gave him a little teddy bear so he wouldn’t be scared.”

Ever since her 1996 “Living With Ghosts” debut, this warm-timbred redhead has crafted astute folk-rock compositions that have been covered by everyone from Bette Midler to the Dixie Chicks.

So why, at 46, did she jump the secular track?

It started with her recent “Waiting for My Child” one-off, which she sang with the legendary Mavis Staples.

Even though Griffin says, “I’m not a gospel music singer, I’m not in that world,” an EMI exec heard the track and suggested a full album of similar covers. She agreed, as long as Miller could oversee it.

Griffin encountered only one problem with “Downtown Church” — appropriate reverence.

“I was trying to keep my swear words to a minimum,” she says. “Because once I got up there behind that pulpit, I realized what a sailor mouth I actually had!”

Patty Griffin

with Buddy Miller

Where: Zellerbach Auditorium, 101 Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Monday

Where: The Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Tickets: $35

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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