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Rhiannon Giddens - O2 SBE, London (17/11/17)

FREEDOM HIGHWAY TOUR

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Rhiannon Giddens has many prestigious awards and accolades to her name including a Grammy win for her previous roots 'string band', the Carolina Chocolate Drops and BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year in 2016. Watching Rhiannon and her band live last night at the packed O2 SBE, you get the impression that she could sing any type of music from Soul, R&B, Blues, Jazz, Musical Theater through to Folk, Blues and Roots music with the same level of skill and excellence. She is passionate, powerful, thought-provoking and a highly skilled vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter.  

Last night marked the latest date of her 'Freedom Highway' UK tour, as part of the excellent London Folk & Roots Festival. Rhiannon and her world class ensemble dazzled the enthralled and enchanted audience with a commanding performance of American music that blended Country, African-American Gospel and Blues, Jazz and even Hip-Hop and Cajun music as she sang, played banjo, fiddle and flat-footed. She roots it all perfectly in the rich story-telling traditions of the American South, taking us from the miseries of slavery, through the civil war and onwards to the freedom marches of the 1960's.

Opening the night was a Canadian singer-songwriter and banjo mistress Kaia Kater, who we think has a wonderful future ahead of her. Kaia released her critically acclaimed second album 'Nine Pin' last year, a powerful and emotive collection of songs with her rich, sweet and powerful vocals front and center.  Born of African-Caribbean descent in Québec, Kaia grew up between two worlds: one her family’s deep ties to Canadian folk music in her Toronto home; the other the years she spent learning and studying Appalachian music in West Virginia. Her acclaimed debut album Sorrow Bound (May 2015) touched on this divide, while 'Nine Pin' explores even further and casts an unflinching eye at the realities faced by people of colour in North America. The album draws on her own love of traditional music and is in part based on Kaia's own personal experiences.

Kaia's all too short stripped set of just vocals and banjo opened with the slow syncopated groove of the traditional 'Little Pink' about love gone bad, a lovely retelling of the ancient story of insecurity and jealousy.  Continuing her rich and personal story-telling style, Kaia's time at University in West Virginia was next covered the the intimate 'Southern Girl'. Showcasing her versatility next with the beautiful waltz the 'Harvest & The Plough', Kaia issued a dance challenge to the audience. Kaia received a banjo lesson from Rhiannon at 12 year old and on the basis of the set so far, she couldn't have had a better teacher. Almost to prove the point two beautifully played tunes followed 'Waiting For Nancy' and 'Valley Free''. Next up was the title track of 'Nine Pin' which comes from “a traditional square dance formation in which a woman stands alone in the middle of a circle of people turning around her”, but there’s a double meaning at play as the nine pin is also “one of the pins in bowling that keeps getting knocked down”. It carries the idea of resilience in the face of continuous hardships and setbacks and is perfectly suited to the song’s world weary lyrics. Kaia then saved one of the best to last with the wonderful 'St.Elizabeth', my personal favourite on her last album, with it's personal narrative around the theme of life and love in the digital age coupled with audience participated at the end of the song with its 'call and response'. Kaia has been described as "Nina Simone meets bluegrass" and we would certainly agree with that.

After a short intermission Rhiannon Giddens and her world class band exploded into the stage with the powerful, infectious and high energy 'Spanish Mary', a tale of love on the high seas. It's a song taken from the 'New Basement Tapes' a project guided by T Bone Burnett, that featured arrangements of unused Bob Dylan lyrics. This segued into some great and high energy fiddle tunes including 'Pateroller' and 'Black Annie'. Showcasing the band's versatility they quickly moved into the toe-tapping funky and jazzy piano led 'The Love We Almost Had'.

History is always a great teacher if we listen, and Rhiannon is a wonderful scholar and champion of human rights and freedom. A case in point is the very moving and powerful 'At The Purchasers Option' based around an advertisement about the sale of a 22 year old slave girl in New England in the 1700's, whose 9-month-old baby was also available “at the purchaser’s option.” She compared it to almost selling a human life like a used second hand car.

With fellow Carolina Chocolate Drops band member Hubby Jenkins on bones, almost tribal drum beats from Jamie Dick and Rhiannon with some super banjo playing, next was the instrumental 'Following The North Star' which certainly had the wow! factor. 

Immigration has always been a hot topic thought the years. The traditional unaccompanied song 'Pretty Saro' is a case in point, a English folk ballad originating in the early 1700s which traveled to America and was preserved in the Appalachian Mountains through oral traditions. 'What makes America great is it's diversity' commented Rhiannon and we wholeheartedly agree. Based on the wonderful old African-American folk tale 'We Could Fly' written by Rhiannon and Dirk Powell imagines people in slavery being able to fly and has the rich and important themes of hope and freedom. A tribute and homage to Odetta 'Water Boy' is a American traditional folk song built on the call "Water boy, where are you hidin'?" It's one of several water boy calls in cotton plantation folk tradition. I loved the stunning fiddle solo.

The next part of the programme was a wonderful Creole and Cajan two-step waltz written by Dewey Balfa called the 'Newport Waltz'. The richest and diversity of the music continued with the traditional African-American infectious spiritual song 'Children, Go Where I Send Thee'. It's also known as "The Holy Baby" or "Born in Bethlehem'. It's always great to have a Aretha Franklin cover in your set and Rhiannon did justice to the super and powerful 'Do Right Woman, Do Right Man'.

Proving that she has a very talented family Rhiannon's sister Lalenja Harriton took lead vocals for the next song 'Just One More Day', with it's soaring gospel harmonies. The fantastic R&B driven 'Better Get It Right The First Time' deals with the contemporary topic of the shootings of young black men in America and included a rapped testimony by nephew Justin Harrington.

The personal stories of slaves in the America Civil War is the theme of the very powerful and moving 'Come Love Come' with it's infectious refrain 'Come, love come, the road lies low. The way is long and hard I know. Come, love come, the road lies free. I'll wait for you in Tennessee." It's based on some of the personal accounts in a book called 'The Slaves War - The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves' by Andrew Ward. A Roebuck 'Pop' Staples written classic and the new album's title track 'Freedom Highway' completed the main part of the set. It discusses the struggles in civil rights movement in the 1960's . The song also refers to the murder of Emmett Till at Tallahatchie River. The lyrics begin “March up freedom's highway, march each and every day.......Made up my mind and I won't turn around.".

A very well standing ovation followed for this world class band and it's incredibly talented leading lady.

Rhiannon and the band rounding of the evening of music perfectly with her tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee) "the original soul sister" and "the godmother of rock and roll and R&B" with great versions of 'Lonesome Road' and 'Up Above My Head'

Another very well deserved standing O followed. With a couple of bows and waves from the band, Rhiannon skipped and danced off stage with the sound of the appreciative sell-out audience still ringing around the venue. A superb night of music from a modern leading star of America Roots music.

  • Rhiannon Giddens - Lead Vocals, Banjo, Fiddle
  • Dirk Powell - Keys, Accordion, Electric/Acoustic Guitar, Fiddle, Mandolin
  • Hubby Jenkins (CCD) - Banjo, Electric/Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin, Bones and Vocals
  • Jamie Dick - Drums and percussion
  • Jason Sypher - Bass/Upright Double Bass
  • Lalenja Harrington – harmony vocals, Vocals
  • Justin Harrington - Rapping and backing vocals

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