–By Marie Taylor
–Photos by Ryan Ledesma
If you weren’t at The Pageant on Monday, September 25th, then you missed out on a fantastic night of soulful Americana music delivered by rising Americana star Rhiannon Giddens. If you haven’t heard her name before, don’t worry, you will.
Originally part of the mega-talented folk/Americana group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens has been making a name for herself with her recent solo albums, Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015), and Freedom Highway (2017). The first album was produced by the famous T. Bone Burnett, if that helps clue you in to her talent. Best known for her flexible range and soulful renditions of classic songs, Giddens is also a talented musician who can play the banjo and fiddle expertly.
Despite it being a smaller crowd (for shame, St. Louis!) fans were ready for Giddens and she was ready for them. If you were to listen to any of her albums at home, her unique and beautiful voice would blow you away. If you were to see her in concert, you would get that same voice but with the added power of watching her in action. Her band brought their own energy to the mix and kept up the singer’s enthusiasm throughout the entire performance. Louisiana-based musician Dirk Powell often accompanied the singer on guitar, piano, and accordion. Giddens’s sister, Lalenja Harrington, also dazzled the crowd with her powerful duets with the singer.
Many of the songs for the night were off the artist’s recently released album, Freedom Highway (also the name of the tour), which was released by Nonesuch Records on February 24th, 2017. A self-proclaimed “student of history” and “conduit for voices that need to be heard”, Giddens wrote original songs from the album based on sources and events from the past 150 years, often highlighting the struggles that African Americans have faced in the fight for equality.
What is so mesmerizing about Giddens is her ability to transform her voice and the performance of every song. When singing the haunting ballad “Spanish Mary”, Giddens adds these beautiful lilts to her voice that are reminiscent of classic Celtic singers. Then when she’s singing the song “Underneath the Harlem Moon” (originally sung by legend Ethel Waters) her voice transforms again to mimic the sounds and emotions of the 1930s. She becomes the emotions of the songs that she’s singing, which is especially beautiful when translating old music for a modern audience.
One song that particularly stands out from the night was “At the Purchaser’s Option”, which was about a young black woman sold into slavery while taking care of her young baby. Throughout this haunting song Giddens managed to convey the spirit of the brutal times while still giving strength to the unknown woman who was based on a real newspaper clipping.
Not sure of what to expect from the performance, I came away from the night thinking that Rhiannon Giddens is and will continue to be a powerhouse for music and change. Not one to shy away from controversial topics or her own journey as an African American musician, Giddens is blunt about her role in bringing tough history to the masses. In a genre that has been criticized for its lack of real diversity and appropriation of black music, Rhiannon Giddens is a refreshing and talented musician who has taken American history and brought it to an audience that is ready to listen and learn.
Instrumental/Better Get It Right the First Time
Waterboy (Odetta cover)
The Love We Almost Had
At the Purchaser’s Option
We Could Fly
Children Go Where I Send Thee
One More Day
Better Get It Right the First Time – featuring Justin Harrington
Do Right Woman, Do Right Man (Aretha Franklin cover)
Underneath the Harlem Moon (Ethel Waters cover)
Come Love Come