American Songbook Presents Rhiannon Giddens At Alice Tully Hall, Saturday, May 13th, 2017, Reviewed
“On Sunday, 15th September, 1963, a white man was seen getting out of a white and turquoise Chevrolet car and placing a box under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Soon afterwards, at 10.22 a.m., the bomb exploded killing Denise McNair (11), Addie Mae Collins (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Cynthia Wesley (14). The four girls had been attending Sunday school classes at the church.”
Oddly enough, I had been thinking of Joan Baez before Rhiannon Giddens covered Baez’s “Birmingham Sunday” (written by Richard Farina) about the death of those innocent victims. Giddens performance was a form of protest by excavating songs about slavery and its aftermath. Rhiannon drew a straight line between one Church in Birmingham and another, the Charleston church shooting that happened June 15th, 2015. I was sitting next to Tomas Doncker, the composer of “Church Burning Down” about the shooting, and between the two the specter of slavery and institutionalized racism made everything that Rhiannon had sung before, and after, far more relevant than you might have wished for. Like Joan Baez, it was protest music, deep in Rhiannon’s musical trip was a stark protest of what had been and is. Earlier she had dedicated Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” to President Trump, and between the two songs, the broken hearted and the slap happy put down, the aesthetics of an exquisite night of music shifted into focus.
Giddens is a woman of biracial heritage who graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music before forming the Carolina Chocolate Drops , Though popular before that, I myself had little interest in musicology and a dislike of genre mush brained “Americana,” roundly ignored her till I caught her at T-Bone Burnett’s 2013 folk renewal concert “Another Time, Another Place,” where she was a huge highlight of the evening. I backtracked and this years Freedom Highway (Rhiannon made the point that streaming doesn’t pay and we should buy stuff! Tomas bought a vinyl album for himself and a tee-shirt for me after the gig) cemented the deal. Last night did more than that, it was an important gig as far as those things go, in front of a well heeled, blanche white audience of patrons of the arts (who have first shot at tickets). With her backing band, I mean “ensemble,” she performed for over 90 minutes a scintillating mix and max genre busting Americana, essentially the show she has been on the road with but this is New York so when she mentions Ethel Waters we know what she means.
Barefoot and very lovely, Rhiannon defined a form of idealized womanhood, whether sad, angry, or laughing, there was a steeliness about her performance that fit her subject matter very well and allowed her to cover everything from “coon” variant and plentiful sassy “Underneath The Harlem Moon” to a heartfelt and soulful Patsy Cline “She’s Got You”. In such control throughout the evening, Giddens was willing to take her time and prepare us for devastating self-written songs like “At The Purchasers Option” based upon a print ad for a woman in slave bondage to be sold, whose child is optional, and “Julie,” a song that hits like a sucker punch: “Mistress oh mistress, that trunk of gold is what you got when my children you sold”. Especially poignant given Giddens own two children, the empathy overwhelming. “Do dehumanize someone, you must dehumanize yourself”.
If the songs were strong smart and brilliant, the performances were their equal. On banjo and keyboards, the co-producer of Freedom’s Highway, Louisiana’s Dirk Powell would be consider an anchor in a lesser band, and his Zydeco medley was wonderful (the man rocks the accordion, Rhiannon almost jumped for joy while nailing the violin), but that woman singing back up is Rhiannon’s sister Lalenja Harrington, on lead guitar her Carolina Chocolate Drop friend Hubby Jenkins -a blast of glory “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” was probably the most fun of the evening. Rounded out by drummer Jamie Dick and the winning indeed trumpeter Alphonso Horne leading the Florida Horns, the band provided Rhiannon with so much comfort and camaraderie that the artistry became friendly, there was both an ease and an intelligence to the way they shared the stage and by extension they way they presented themselves to us. History without the dryness, contemporary without brittleness, importance without self-righteousness. I do have a complaint, why she didn’t include the outstanding “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind,” as pure an exercise in soulfulness as you’ll ever hear, I have no idea.
Halfway through the last song of the evening, an adorable and elevating take on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head,” it was enough to make you wonder if you were going to live forever, and as Rhiannon literally skipped off stage, it was enough to luxuriate in the moment and gain immortality by other means… the way a great concert lets you. Joan Baez would approve.