“Please continue to make noise whenever you want,” remarked Rhiannon Giddens four songs into her astonishing Opera House performance earlier tonight.
The call came in response to the singer’s transportive delivery of She’s Got You, the Hank Cochran country classic and a decades-old hit for Patsy Cline. As was the case for much of this extraordinary evening, Giddens took the tune to another country altogether. Her band – the current line-up of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the African-American string band responsible for much of Giddens’ previous visibility, plus a rhythm section and backing vocalist – reimagined the song with an earthier, swampier sway. But the singer’s gorgeously clean and complete intonation underscored the lyrics’ inherent torch song legacy.
Similarly potent was Waterboy, popularized initially by folk giant Odetta, but delivered by Giddens with a field holler intensity that sounded in no way revivalistic. Her vocal command was pure, involving and beautifully immediate.
The scope of the setlist was remarkable, as well. With 8 of the 11 songs from Giddens’ debut album Tomorrow is My Turn serving as its centerpiece, the show opened with a pair of tunes (Spanish Mary and Hidee Hidee Ho #16) from Lost on the River, a 2014 collaborative album credited to The New Basement Tapes that fashioned new music for unpublished Bob Dylan lyrics (or, as Giddens described them tonight, “a couple of songs I wrote with Bob Dylan in the ‘60s”). The program concluded 90 minutes later with two works by gospel-charged rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, including the powerfully jubilant Up Above My Head.
The Chocolate Drops had their say, too, from the jagged cello lines of Malcolm Parson (essentially the lead instrumental voice within the band’s all-acoustic makeup) to multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins’ ultra-funky vocal charge on Blind Willie Johnson’s Can’t Nobody Hide from God to the Celtic-Appalachian chatter of bones by Rowan Corbett that peppered the rich roots intensity of Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man? to Giddens’ own turns on banjo and fiddle.
Fascinating as all that was, the evening belonged to Giddens the vocalist. In an age where pop singers are cranked out as auto-tuned celebrities with little or no personal investment in the material they interpret, Giddens is a gift. There was no fabrication or forced intent in her delivery. What was on display tonight was the performance of an artist on the cusp of a true critical and commercial breakthrough with a voice that was regal, confident and, at every turn, breathtaking.