- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

All the many years of her distinguished career, singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith has carried a torch for the great songs of yesterday — and with her latest album, 2006’s “Ruby’s Torch,” the “folkabilly queen” finally got the chance to pay homage.

She culled together 11 tunes that, while they may not all hail from distant decades, play like reels of beloved old movies; they’re intimate confessions steeped in longing that evoke simpler (not necessarily happier) times. To complete the nostalgic emotional effect, she wraps her plaintive vocals in rich symphonic arrangements.

Selections include melodies made famous by Frank Sinatra (“In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”) and Michael Johnson (“Bluer Than Blue”), several ditties penned by Tom Waits (such as “Grapefruit Moon”) and one by Jimmy Webb (“If These Walls Could Speak”), and, of course, a few of her own cuts.

“This type of music is when you were a little kid and you’re riding in the car and your parents are listening to the radio,” she says.

No stranger to covers (1993’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms”) and orchestral backing (1999 “The Dust Bowl Symphony”), Miss Griffith’s “Ruby” is not so much a reinvention as an exploration.

“I’ve dabbled in doing these kind of classic pop songs in the past, with one or two songs per record, and my audiences just love it.” she says. “It just seemed like it was time to do this.”

Since she landed her first gigs in Texas at the age of 14, Miss Griffith has had a strong sense of what to do and when to do it.

Her instincts have led to a spectacular run for nearly four decades that’s seen her record more than 20 albums, seize three Grammys and provide fellow musicians with chart-topping hits (her “Love at the Five and Dime” thrust Kathy Mattea into the limelight, for one).

In 2003, Miss Griffith played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time. “Who knew?” she says, still somewhat slackjawed over the honor.

While her visibility and cachet have swelled, the musician says her songwriting technique has remained pretty much the same as it was when she was plucking her first strings. “You stick your hand out in the air when songs are flying by,” she says, “and if you’re lucky enough to catch them …”

For the moment, the now-Nashville resident is taking a break from song-harvesting duties to do a “Ruby”-themed cabaret tour, which will bring her to the area for two dates; she and her Blue Moon Orchestra perform at Rams Head Tavern (www.ramsheadtavern .com) on Monday at 6:30 and 9 p.m., and at the Birchmere (www.birchmere.com) on March 17 at 10 p.m.

The Docs are in

If there is such a thing as the luck of the Irish, the Saw Doctors must have it. About to celebrate 20 years of making raucous music together, they’re perhaps the most successful rock band to come out of Ireland since U2 and hold the record for best-selling single in their homeland (“I Useta Lover”).

They’ve also made a few friends in high places.

The last time the Docs graced the D.C. area, for example, they came at the special request of Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who invited them to play at his inaugural ball in January.

Mr. O’Malley has always been a fervent supporter of Irish culture, and in addition to sharing vocal duties with the Docs on occasion, for many years he fronted his own now-defunct band, O’Malley’s March, which showcased his love of Celtic rock — as well as his singing and guitar skills.

“We’ve known Martin even before he became mayor [of Baltimore],” vocalist and songwriter Davy Carton says.

“We’ve been touring in America since the early to mid-‘90s, and he came to see us years ago in Washington, D.C., when we played the 9:30 Club. Then, when he became mayor, whenever we’d play in Baltimore, we’d see these big, burly bodyguards making their way through the crowd and he was somewhere behind them and he’d play the last song with us,” he says.

Mr. Carton describes the recent inaugural festivities as “a great party” — despite the fact that the band’s keyboardist had to interrupt his honeymoon in order to play the show (ah, the life of a musician’s wife).

The night after Mr. O’Malley’s bash, the Saw Doctors attended a dinner thrown in their honor by the European Union’s ambassador to the U.S., Irishman John Bruton.

While they also count former Irish President Mary Robinson and the U.S. House of Representatives among their client roster, the musicians don’t aim to impress only dignitaries. Regular audiences are enough of a priority to make the guys sweat and strum for two solid hours onstage; Mr. Carton says their typical sets contain between 25 and 30 tunes.

“Generally, people need to buy a new shirt by the end of the night,” he adds.

Currently, the rockers are on a tightly scheduled American tour that capitalizes on the St. Patrick’s Day state-of-mind — in other words, get out your dancing shoes.

The Docs are in tonight; they play the Birchmere’s bandstand (www.birchmere.com) at 7:30.

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