By Brian Wise.
Corner Hotel – Tuesday April 11, 2017
Just a few weeks after Rhiannon Giddens’ acclaimed first Australian tour last year she appeared in the Blues Tent at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. It was her debut as a solo artist and though she had appeared there before with her group the Carolina Chocolate Drops she was probably not prepared for the reception she was to receive. A standing ovation followed every song, something usually reserved for legends like Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas. Then there was an encore fact, which is almost unprecedented.
It was a total triumph and surprised Giddens and her group, which had by then included acclaimed multi-instrumentalist/producer Dirk Powell. The extra time spent getting the sound right – and Giddens is somewhat of a perfectionist – paid dividends and that hour will live in the memories of everyone who witnessed it.
While Giddens’ debut album, the T Bone Burnett produced Tomorrow Is My Turn was the main focus last year Giddens previewed some of the songs that would appear on her new album Freedom Highway. Where that first album contained interpretations of songs by some of the greatest women songwriters and performers the new album is mainly original, its songs offering clear evidence of Giddens’ interest in slave history; they provided a serious platform for the new album, given new emphasis by the US election result last year. It was almost prescient that Pops Staples’ ‘Freedom Highway’ had already been included on the album prior to that election (it then became the album title).
A year or so on the road can do a power of good for a band. If we thought that Giddens and her touring band – which included not only Dirk Powell and former Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins – were tight back then they have become an even more finely honed machine. This is an outfit that offers the perfect musical backdrop for Giddens’ songs.
A 45-minute support set for Bonnie Raitt at Hamer Hall on the Monday evening gave Giddens a chance to focus on the new album and long enough on stage to almost outshine the main act. After seeing Giddens the most appealing part of Raitt’s set became the ballads and the blues songs where the sound was pared back and the voice was in the foreground. (John Prine’s ‘Angel From Montgomery,’ Skip James’ ‘Devil Got My Woman’ and Raitt’s own ‘I Can’t make You Love Me’ were the standouts)
The next evening Giddens and her group had their own show at a packed Corner Hotel and started with ‘Spanish Mary’ (her co-write with Dylan from Lost on The River).
What followed was a musical journey through a rich vein of Americana – from the songs inspired by slave tales, to Appalachian jigs, country, civil rights anthems and even some Scottish mouth music thrown in for good measure! Giddens, who won the Steve Martin Award for her skills on the banjo swaps between that instrument and the fiddle with equal facility.
‘At The Purchaser’s Option’ and ‘Julie’ are harrowing stories from the past that sound all too real these days, while ‘We Could Fly,’ also a slave story, is a more uplifting tale of escape. Powell gets to showcase his amazing skills on a Cajun tune and guitarist Jenkins features on vocals for ‘Children Go Where I Send You.’
After a mesmerising few minutes of Giddens channelling her inner Celtic voice with some vocal gymnastics, as if to show that she is a virtuoso as well. It certainly produced a roar of acclaim from the audience.
The evening ended with ‘Birmingham Sunday’ and ‘Freedom Highway,’ as if to underscore the fact that civil rights will become an increasingly important aspect of American society in the next four years. (It is also no less relevant to some segments of the population in Australia).
By the end of the night Giddens had worked her spell again, received a rousing ovation and encore and proved that she is on her way to becoming a major artist (if she isn’t one already). We are hardly likely to see her back at a venue as intimate as The Corner for a while!
As I left, I kept thinking about that Jazz Fest show and the fact that Giddens and her colleagues are back in the Blues Tent there in a few weeks time. Given the momentum and a year’s touring experience they’ll most likely blow the roof off the place!