in performance: rhiannon giddens

rhiannon giddens.

Just prior to letting loose the a cappella intro that kicked off “Waterboy” last night at the KCD Theater in Louisville, Rhiannon Giddens stretched out her arms, folded her hands in and bowed her head. She looked like she about to inhale a hurricane. The ritual must have worked because she exhaled a gale force vocal lead full of righteous soul, sensuous groove and a tone of astonishing and commanding clarity. Just as it was when she performed it at the Lexington Opera House two years ago, Giddens made “Waterboy” her own – a neat trick considering folk empress Odetta managed the same thing with the tune nearly 50 year earlier.

Giddens did that regularly last night with a band that boasted Americana stylist Dirk Powell and her Carolina Chocolate Drops mate Hubby Jenkins, who, between them, colored in the program on guitar, fiddle, accordion, banjo, bones and more. Over the course of two immensely engaging sets, the team allowed works written or popularized by Patsy Cline, Ethel Waters, the Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and more to receive a glorious makeover. Giddens possessed such a potent and wildly pure voice, that each work, regardless of its genre or background, was instilled with a wholly natural sense of vigor.

You heard it in the Staples’ revivalistic social anthem “Freedom Highway,” the epic Cline country heartbreak hit “She’s Got You” and, perhaps most tellingly, Franklin’s 1967 soul gem “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which Giddens sang with a sense of cool, serene defiance.

But this was a more sobering show than the 2016 Opera House outing, mostly because of its focus on original songs of slavery, history and visions of freedom that made up 2017’s “Freedom Highway” album. Some, like “At the Purchaser’s Option,” prompted by a Civil War-era advertisement for a female slave that included an option for the sale of her child, maintained a iron will resilience that flew in the face of the tune’s immovable oppression. Others, including “We Could Fly,” envisioned an escape to freedom that was beautifully, but sadly, presented as folklore.

Rounding out the concert was the banjo-riddled instrumental “Following the North Star,” a Powell-led medley of Cajun tunes built around “Diamanche Apres-Midi” and a show closing cover of Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head,” which embraced the evening with perhaps the most uplifting message of all: “There’s music in the air.”



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