in performance: rhiannon giddens

Rhiannon Giddens.

Just before finishing a stylistically and thematically stunning set last night with “Freedom Highway” at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort, Rhiannon Giddens bowed her head, buried her face in her hands and went silent. When she looked up a few moments later, tears filled her eyes. “I can’t believe we’re having to go through this (expletive) again,” she told the audience.

Clearly, this was not a planned part of the program, although the crowd seemed to be right in step with Giddens. “Freedom Highway,” after all, was a gospel call to activism and equality, an anthem of the civil rights era written and popularized by the Staple Singers. But it seemed, at this instance, the marches of 50 years ago – or, more specifically, the purpose behind them – came into uncomfortable proximity with present day events. As Giddens reminded us, the walk along the Freedom Highway is no less complete now than it was in the 1960s. After apologizing for the sudden burst of emotion, she turned her focus to the tune and turned the testimony of Pop Staples into a blast of revivalistic soul. Together, it all made for a display of remarkably candid performance honesty.

The rest of the show? It was pretty cool, as well, as it reveled in songs that highlighted the potent clarity and pitch of Giddens’ vocals along with songs that reflected a more figurative voice through songs of social (and often historical) urgency.

The former was typified by the title tune to 2015’s “Tomorrow is My Turn” album that replaced the lustrous atmospherics Nina Simone gave to the song in 1962 with a sense of regal reserve that was almost defiantly Giddens’ own creation. At the other extreme was the Odetta-popularized “Waterboy,” still a showcase for the breadth of Giddens’ vocal stamina, from its huge, country-esque hollers to sleeker, bluesier grinds.

The remainder of the repertoire gave voice to her voice, from the simmering, banjo-fueled cover of Ola Belle Reed’s “Gonna Write Myself a Letter” that opened the evening, to Giddens’ own “At the Purchaser’s Option,” (a show of personal strength and identity sung from the perspective of a slave) to the double-whammy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe tunes (“That Lonesome Road,” “Up Above My Head”) that closed the concert. The latter songs lifted the heart while underscoring the fact that Giddens was hardly alone in her renewed push down today’s Freedom Highway.

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