Back to Celebrate Brooklyn! to see one of our national treasures. This was rtb’s and my second time this year seeing Rhiannon Giddens and rtb brought her sister along to introduce her to the wonder that is Giddens.
First up was Joe Henry is a singer/songwriter but is probably most famous for being a producer (Carolina Chocolate Drops, Elvis Costello, Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt, among many many others). He has also co-written songs with his sister-in-law Madonna and Rosanne Cash. Joining Henry on stage were David Mansfield (mandolin, violin), who we’ve seen with Loudon Wainwright III and Yo Lo Tengo, Marc Ribot (electric and acoustic guitars), Jay Bellerose (drums), Levon Henry (saxophone, clarinet), and Ross Gallagher (upright bass). Henry didn’t engage much with the audience but he did say some funny things – before “Don’t Tell Me” he said Madonna performed it as a hit and he performed it as a tango and he sang one song at the piano, not because he plays it well but, because he looks good sitting at it. Henry surrounds himself with excellent musicians and he’s a critics’ darling and I wish I had liked him more. His music is a mix of country, alt-country, and folk and I certainly enjoyed myself listening to him but I wouldn’t run out to buy any of his records.
Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops performed with the band (Hubby Jenkins – guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass drum; Rowan Corbett – guitar, bones, cajon, banjo; and Malcolm Parson – cello, melodica) plus an upright bass player (Jason Sypher), and drummer (Jamie Dick). In addition to her glorious voice, Giddens plays banjo and fiddle and dances. Missing were the two back-up singers she had at Town Hall in April. The set was similar to her Town Hall set with a few surprises.
Giddens began with Dylan’s “Spanish Mary,” for which she has rewritten the music. Then there was Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind,” and Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You.” Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree” was a new addition to the set (it’s on her cd) and Odetta’s “Water Boy” an old favorite and one of the songs that showcases Giddens’ voice. There were instrumentals from 1855 played on a replica of an old banjo accompanied by bones. We heard Jean Ritchie’s “O Love is Teasin’,” also from the cd and “Black is the Color (of My True Love’s Hair),” an Appalachian song that had been recorded by Nina Simone. During “Black is the Color,” Giddens scatted while Parson blew on the melodica. It was transcendental. “Ruby, are You Mad at Your Man?” is a familiar CCD tune and then Giddens turned the stage over to the other CCD members for one instrumental and one prison song sung by Jenkins.
You’ll notice that Giddens focuses on songs by famous female performers. When she writes a song, she’ll also write it from the woman’s point of view and they are just as strong as the covers she chooses. One of the new songs was a former slave calling out for her love and telling him that she’s waiting for him. While CCD does a lot of teaching along with the playing, Giddens has to tamp down her tendency to teach and just focus on the music.
Giddens sang the Gaelic wedding and dance songs that she’s performed with CCD and the songs that convinced T-Bone Burnett to produce her solo album. The band finished up with the oldest song they play (an instrumental) and the newest song – “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” The evening ended with Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head” with the audience joining in the call and response.
On her own, Giddens is wonderful. But to know that she gave this fantastic performance after just flying in from Belgium takes the performance to an even higher level. She never missed a note or a beat. Neither did the band.
By Carene Lydia Lopez