Our Nobel laureate for literature should have tipped a fedora to Rhiannon too, and not because she’s about five hundred times more lovely to watch and listen to.
“By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details,” Dylan said. “You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. I had all the vernacular down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head — the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries — and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day.”
Giddens clearly “knows what it's all about.” What she and her fabulously tight band gave Charleston Friday night was a musically gilded trip down not-so deserted roads. Down dark roads haunted, and sadly still too crowded, by the ugly shadows and vehicular vestiges of racism, injustice, a dehumanization of others “that dehumanizes all of us,” as she remarked in the lead-up to a song titled “Julia,” a pulsing number about 9-month old slave child, with Hubby Jenkins’ pleading mandolin punctuating the searing lyric (“You can take my body/Take my bones/Take my blood/But not my soul”).
This was the best kind of trip down “Freedom Highway” (as her recent album and current tour is titled), a trip with the top down and the music full-on blaring — damn good music. This was music we know deep in our bones, music we can’t help but sing along to (“go ahead, you know you want to,” she nudged the audience during a call/response encore number), because it’s our history, our vernacular, tunes mysteriously twined around our DNA strands. But she made “it connect and move with the current of the day,” to reprise Dylan’s remarks.
Like Dylan, Giddens has done her musicology homework, and her performance was a Nobel-worthy “lecture” that elevated and transformed classics (Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right” and an Ethel Water’s “Harlem Moon” among others) into dazzling, raucous, soul-wrenching numbers. We got churched with good-ole gospel and spirituals; we got the Blues; we got jazz and scat singing; we got roiling Cajun razzmatazz (thanks to the incredible Dirk Powell); we got rap (thanks to her nephew); and we got Rhiannon playing the hell out of the banjo and fiddle, digging back to her Old Time Music roots — numbers that first brought her attention and acclaim with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In short, we got more than we paid for.
It’s a good thing that the barefoot Giddens was wearing a corset-like laced-up top — it may have been all that kept her unleashed spirit and soaring voice from full launch-into-orbit mode. It was also good that the Gaillard mixing folks maybe tweaked a little something at intermission, as the sound, which was a tad muffled (at least from my seat in the orchestra) during the first set, seemed clearer for the second half. But no minor sound glitch could keep the audience from appreciating the raw power of Giddens and her entourage, especially Jamie Dick on drums who was in clear command from the mesmerizing opener “Spanish Mary” (a song plucked from Dylan’s unpublished notebooks) onward.
This was Giddens’ fourth appearance at Spoleto Festival USA, so in addition to a solid stand-alone performance, it was an opportunity (for those fortunate enough to have seen earlier shows) to track a musician’s maturity and evolution. Giddens is the antithesis of a pop music one-hit wonder. She’s constantly pushing and growing, delving down through music’s mysteriously resonate language and legacy to make relevant, in this place and this time, the ageless truths, the timeless tunes, that bind our common humanity into one chorus, one verse, in the way that music alone can do, and that Rhiannon Giddens does with extraordinary talent and brilliance.