Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi

Grand Central Hall 29/11/19

“It’s a really weird time to be alive right now,” states RHIANNON GIDDENS, soberly, as she wraps up her set at Grand Central Hall. The laughter and applause that has flowed so freely all evening, now levels out to a nervous silence. On the eve of an election, up against the relentless noise of propaganda and the blathering of insidious agents, plain speaking of this kind can catch you off guard.

Giddens’ career has never shied away from the political. Her work with revivalists Carolina Chocolate Drops paid tribute to every imaginable facet of African American music. This year’s outstanding Songs of Our Native Daughters project pushed this sense of racial politics further in its aim “to tell forgotten stories of the African diaspora in North America, with its women upfront”, as Jude Rogers wrote last February. In light of recent scenes, tonight’s performance feels particularly resonant.

Joined by jazz multi-instrumentalist and partner FRANCESCO TURRISI and Jason Sypher on upright bass, the trio display a remarkable scholarly approach and versatility as performers throughout. It’s impossible to keep up with their instrument hopping, as Turrisi, ever the showman, works every angle of his collection of dafs (frame drums). Their repertoire also spans an exceptionally wide canon of traditional music.

"Rallying against division and preaching kindness, it feels like both a multicultural masterclass and an explorative response to history" David Weir

From minstrel balladry to arias, howling vaudeville to the rattling delivery of a Gaelic tune; Celtic and North American material (like the austere Wayfaring Stranger) falls in alongside little-known Middle Eastern, African and Italian folk songs. Yet, there’s still a distinct through line to the set. Giddens inhabits these songs, drawing similarities and the humanity from them with an unrivalled charismatic flair.

Rallying against division and preaching kindness, it feels like both a multicultural masterclass and an explorative response to history as it continues to unfold. After the lovelorn Appalachian mountain ballad Pretty Saro, for their encore they throw their weight into gospel classic Up Above My Head. Tambourine held high like a baton passed down from the foremother of rock ’n’ roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe herself, in the hands of Rhiannon Giddens, each strike sounds rebellion.

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