It was show time for Rhiannon Giddens at the Rialto Theatre in Tucson, Arizona. There is no doubt that she has one of the most unique, exquisite voices in music today. Ms. Giddens graduated from Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio after intensively studying opera for five years. Although, she traded opera for Americana music, her immense vocal control had to have been acquired from her early opera training. Regardless, Rhiannon Giddens and her band gave a stunning performance on April 29.
Rhiannon Giddens is a self-proclaimed history buff and her new album, Freedom Highway, bears testimony to her inspiration and enthusiasm of bringing forth past truths. The show is predominantly songs from her newest release with a sprinkling of songs from The New Basement Tapes and Tomorrow Is My Turn.
Most of the songs on Freedom Highway were written by Ms. Giddens and Dirk Powell. It would be nice to say that Freedom Highway completes the message that Tomorrow is My Turn only started. However, it expounds on the subject. It does not complete the subject since modern times have not succeeded in relieving racial tensions in America. The songs in the album have a cautionary message that history has a way of repeating itself.
Ms. Giddens first introduced “Julie” at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival last year. This song is fine example of history being in the details. It was a song she wrote after reading a narrative that was a conversation overheard from two women standing by the bank watching the union army march on the plantation. The conversation was between the mistress and the woman that she thought she owned. This is a story that presents both women’s perspective. She also performed a powerful, gospel-edged “Birmingham Sunday” from the civil right’s era about the tragic bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. The violence toward Black churches has continued. As Ms. Giddens said, "We have to keep singing about it. We have to keep talking about it."
Rhiannon interpreted songs by Patsy Cline, Odetta, and Mavis Staples. Her fresh and exuberant delivery on the old classic tunes is exciting. “She’s Got You” has quickly become a fan favorite in all genre of music. Her delivery was so powerful and sassy during the song, a fan shouted, “you tell it,” toward the end of the song.
The same brilliant musicians that performed on the new album are the same ones that performed during this show and the rest of the tour. They are Dirk Powell (co-producer of the new album) on electric guitar, keyboards, fiddle and banjo, Hubby Jenkins (member of Carolina Chocolate Drops) on mandolin, guitar, handclaps, Jamie Dick on drums and percussion, Jason Sypher on acoustic bass, Justin Harrington-rapper (nephew), Lalenja Harrington vocals (sister), and Rhiannon Giddens on minstrel banjo and fiddle. This was Justin's first performance as a rapper in concert.
Rhiannon Giddens and her band will be returning to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on May 5. There will be a stop in Albuquerque and Dallas on the way. It is hard not to be in awe of one of this generation’s greatest singer/songwriters.