I’ve been out of the routine of writing these posts, so this one took longer than it should, and I’ve written and re-written sections of it repeatedly. Because I’m trying to convey a message….
Rhiannon Giddens is awesome.
I first got into Rhiannon Giddens when I saw Carolina Chocolate Drops on the TV broadcast of the Cambridge Folk Festival a few years ago. I’m not the world’s biggest folk fan, but The Unthanks (subject of the very first “How I Got Into….” post) were on so I tuned in for that and stayed for the rest. It was the performance from Carolina Chocolate Drops, playing Hit ’em Up Style, that had me reaching for the remote and rewinding several times. And it was the lead singer and violinist, Rhiannon Giddens, who was the focus of attention, driving the song with energy and wit, mixing the violin breaks into a raunchy, rangy and downright fun performance. Listen to their album, Genuine Negro Jig – it’s really good.
She’s now solo, and appeared on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny (Hootenanny! – one for the UK readers) on New Year’s Eve and (for me) stole the show with performances of Waterboy and Up Above My Head, as well as an impressive duet with Tom Jones on St James Infirmary Blues. Waterboy in particular is a great showcase for her voice’s power, control and range (that opera training, I guess).
So I was already a fan, and then I had the chance to see her at a Transatlantic Sessions gig in Birmingham Symphony Hall. Transatlantic Sesssions is a 10-piece collection of veteran folk musicians from Britain, Ireland and America playing a blend of music from both sides of the Atlantic. For the tour they invite a number of guests, also representing both traditions, and one of those guests was Rhiannon Giddens.
The band played an impressive selection of tunes, mostly jigs and reels, and the other guests took their turns are were all excellent and accomplished. Then the last act before the interval was Giddens. Even before her turn she was catching the eye – the guests remain on-stage throughout the concert, on a sofa behind the band, and when the rest of the stage is filled with (mostly) middle-aged, (exclusively) white, (mostly) men, all dressed in folk-music-drab or plain black/white, this young barefoot African-American woman in the bright red dress stands out.
She performed Julie and Waterboy, and we went into the interval happy. But, as the saying goes, the best was yet to come.
Back for the second half, more Celtic/American tunes expertly played, more from each of the guests (all very good in their different styles), then it was Giddens’ turn again. First She’s Got You (originally recorded by Patsy Cline), already shifting from folk into Country, which was impressive enough.
But then she did something very unusual. She took the microphone off its stand.
The audience all sat up a little straighter. What was going on? Folk singers don’t hold the microphone. Either their hands of full of an instrument, or tucked behind or in front, or kept clear for a bit of clapping or tapping the beat or (to adopt the stereotype) so they can stick a finger in an ear. So now we knew we were in for something different. This woman was going to move.
Black Is The Colour opens with minimal accompaniment, Giddens’ voice establishing a rhythmic bounce which is then picked up by the full band at the end of the first verse. And now she starts to build the song, gradually releasing the power, spinning and dancing in the instrumental breaks as the 10-piece folk band – fiddles, pipes, accordian, guitars, Dobro, and the rest – have a rare old time rocking out behind her.
It’s a funky, rocking, dancing, gospel-charged performance – and it took the roof off. There may have been people in that audience who’d never seen anything like it – this was not folk music as usual, and not the Celtic/Americana that Transatlantic Sessions usually provides – but after those five or so minutes of energy, everyone in the audience was a fan.
As Jerry Douglas said, introducing the next act, “And tonight’s lucky loser, who has to follow that….”
This excellent review from folkradio.co.uk of the Glasgow show sums it up well – “her sheer dynamic, energetic presence”.
I’ve not been able to find film of Black Is The Colour from Transatlantic Sessions, so if you weren’t there you’ll have to take my word for it: quite simply, one of the best live performances of a song I’ve ever witnessed. It was a thrill.
Do go and check out Rhiannon Giddens’ first solo album, Tomorrow is my Turn (produced by the mighty legend T-Bone Burnett) – it’s a great showcase for her range of skills and vocal styles, and her musicianship. But judging by the evidence of that night in Birmingham, I’ll be queuing for tickets next time she’s performing live.
Here are a few links, but do look at others too – Rhiannon Giddens’ breadth of material is extraordinary:
Hit ‘Em Up Style – Carolina Chocolate Drops. This isn’t that performance from the Cambridge Folk Festival – the only video of that I can find is something filmed on a phone by someone in the crowd and long-time followers of this blog will know my opinion on that. But this version has the same dynamism and drive that hooked me the first time.
Waterboy – the power and control in that voice (though I’m a bit worried about hyper-extension of that left elbow).
Up Above My Head – from Jools Holland’s Hootenanny. Some indication of the energy Rhiannon Giddens can generate, this time showing her gospel side.
Black Is The Colour – no video of the Transatlantic Sessions performance, but this one gives a an idea of the song.
And this short documentary film showcases several performance clips (like a brief snippet of Gaelic Song near the start) and some interesting background about Rhiannon Giddens.
Finally, do have a look at the videos on the Transatlantic Sessions facebook page for a few examples of what they do in more conventional situations.