Rhiannon Giddens soars above the cotton fields

Rhiannon Giddens – The Factory Theatre, Sydney – 8 April 2017

RG

Rhiannon Giddens’ songs are  steeped in the traditions & history of the US South – not just the rich musical traditions, but the history of the place and the struggles of her people. She she sings from the soul, rendering heartfelt tributes to her civil war era forebears on her haunting trilogy of gospel infused originals which provide the backbone of this short but perfectly formed show.

‘At The Purchaser’s Option’ tells of the heartbreaking plight of a 17 year old slave girl advertised for sale with her 9 month old child being ‘at the purchaser’s option (the room audibly gasps at her introduction to the song’s origins). Then there’s the four innocent Sunday school girls at the centre of ‘Birmingham Sunday’ -murdered in the bombing of a Birmingham church by white supremacists – a tale  from which Giddens draws parallels to more recent world events.

Finally comes ‘We Could Fly’ – the last song penned for her current album ‘Freedom Highway (named for her cover of the Staples Singers’ song which appears on the album but is not heard tonight) – which takes the audience flying above the cotton fields of the deep South in her fine rendering of a folk tale of spiritual stoicism, defiance and emancipation.

If all of this sounds like it could result in a show which is nothing more than a dull, studied throwback to the past, then you couldn’t be further from the mark because Giddens and her band know that gospel music is a joyous celebration of the soul.

Giddens

The band is expertly led by Grammy award winning multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger Dirk Powell  and features Giddens’ Carolina Chocolate Drops bandmate Hubby Jenkins (guitar, banjo and, yes, bones), together with Jason Sypher (double bass) and Jamie Dick (drums).

They swing throughout, infusing  every song with an unbridled spirit which provides a perfect musical scaffold in, through and around which Giddens’ rich, evocative vocals, can soar, glide and swoop – just like the slaves in We Could Fly.

The show intersperses these Giddens’ originals from ‘Freedom Highway’ with traditional dance music from Louisiana and Canada (on which Giddens’ fiddle playing raises wafts of smoke), a Carolina Chocolate Drops duet with Jenkins, ‘Spanish Mary’ (featuring Dylan’s lyrics set to her music for ‘The New Basement Tapes’ project) and her interpretations of Odetta’s ‘Waterboy’, Hank Cochran’s ‘She’s Got You’ and a medley of Sister Rosetta Thorpe songs.

When Giddens’ announces – all too early – that she has just one song left and warns that there will be no encore as she has tonsillitis and is ‘pumped full of steroids’, our awe at her complete vocal, musical and lyrical mastery are only enhanced by our recognition of her dedication.

Tonight Giddens has broken the shackles of illness and taken us flying with her high above the cotton fields.

[Thanks to Jeannine Clarke for the photos]

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Willow Springs – Michael McDermott

willow-springs

Willow Springs kicks off with the title track, a dense, ambitious and poetic composition featuring some 25 verses which cut to the quick. It’s a stunning attention-grabber with the decidedly Dylanesque structure and quick fire array of imagery: “Pimps and pushers, presidents/The paupers preach the tenements/ The cowboy’s code, the whore laments/The coming judgment day”.

It introduces perfectly each of the themes which remain at the heart of the album over its whole course: ‘dreams undone’, days spent wandering ‘through the wasteland’, ‘squandered salvation‘ and, ultimately, the redemptive power of love.

If nothing else on the album quite matches it for sheer audacity, that’s a relief. The album is stronger for its diversity which allows the full range of McDermott’s songwriting talent to shine through in songs about cars, war and love in its various guises.

The marvel of this release lies in the the depth and authenticity of the songwriting which, while not strictly autobiographical, reflects McDermott’s own backstory. Bursting on to the US music scene in 1991 with his debut album, McDermott was quickly compared to Springsteen and Dylan by a fawning music press and celebrity fans. He subsequently hit harder times – believing the hype, living the rock ‘n’ roll life, dabbling in drugs and alcohol, losing his record contract and even spending a stint in jail. Slowly but surely he ground his way back through a series of increasingly accomplished self-released albums, the support of his wife and bandmate Heather Horton and the birth of his baby daughter (to whom the track ‘Willie Rain’ is dedicated – and whose ‘I love you Daddy’ features in it). Willow Springs completes that journey and stands as his defining statement.

Despite the evident quality of the songwriting and the lyrical themes, dwelling on the aforementioned Dylan and Springsteen comparisons would do McDermott a disservice. He has a commanding voice of his own. Perhaps other contemporary artists such as Jason Isbell, John Murry, Simone Felice or Matthew Ryan provide a fairer and more relevant touchstone. Willow Springs cements McDermott’s place in that company.