The only thing anyone could have wanted more of at Rhiannon Giddens’ show this past evening at Symphony Space was…Rhiannon Giddens. As a bandleader, the former Carolina Chocolate Drop and Americana roots music maven is extremely generous, and gave her bandmates plenty of time in the spotlight. The evening’s theme was a salute to influential, paradigm-shifting African-American women. The performance turned out to not only be the expected, characteristically insightful, potently relevant guided tour of a far too neglected part of American history, but also a fascinating look at how Giddens works up new material.
The venue has given her a residency this month where she’s not only playing but also booking the space. This was the first of her own shows, backed by a supple, understated rhythm section of Jason Cypher on bass and Attis Clopton on drums. Pianist Francesco Turrisi supplied rapturously glittering piano that spanned from deep blues to neoromantic lustre to postbop jazz power. Playing with a mute, trumpeter Alphonso Horne spun wistfully soaring, ambered lines.
To her left, Giddens’ sister Lalenja Harrington took the role of narrator for the night, channeling Fannie Lou Hamer’s defiance and fearlessness with excerpts from a selection of prime Civil Right-era speeches. In a time where a new Jim Crow era grows closer and closer in the mirror, those words have never been more relevant.
In keeping with that relevance, Giddens sang Nina Simone’s Old Jim Crow. It was the centerpiece in a brief set of material by the iconic chanteuse. They didn’t do Mississippi Goddamn, but they did play Four Women, Harrington giving somber, gospel-tinged validation to its litany of resilient if embattled black American archetypes.
With her cutting alto, Giddens cut loose with her most raw, plaintive vocal flights of the night in a rousing medley of Sister Rosetta Tharpe numbers, first romping Down That Lonesome Road. Then Giddens and the band sent out a shout to current-day resistance with Up Above My Head, a theme that in the age of Metoo is felt as strongly in the air as it was in 1956.
Turrisi made the most of his chance to build stormy, McCoy Tyner-esque solos during a work-in-progress by Horne. The trumpeter’s grandfather, a South African immigrant, took a prominent role in the organization founded by legendary Harlem Renaissance activist and preacher Mother Kofi, whose history Horne is exploring. Harrington narrated the tale of how the charismatic Ghanian-born firebrand was discovered and then disowned by Marcus Garvey, how she set out on her own – and was assassinated in 1928. Turrisi’s clenched-teeth intensity over a rolling-thunder West African groove was one of the highlights of the night. From there, a faux-soukous interlude went on to the point where one audience member equated it to a Disney cruise ship theme. Then again, that’s the milieu Horne comes from.
There was also a tapdancer who seemed to be a last-minute addition to the bill, possibly working without a setlist. She began by kicking up a storm during the stern, richly ambered minor-key vamp that eventually segued into Giddens’ austere take of Summertime. At that point, the barrage of kicks and clicks began to drown out the rest of the band. It was like an Eddie Van Halen heavy metal guitar solo during the intro to Mood Indigo – or laughter at a funeral. And by the time the band hit that spirited Sister Rosetta Tharpe segment, where those volleys of beats would have been the icing on the cake, the dancer was out of gas.
Counterintuitively, Giddens encored with a stark take of the old Scottish folk song Pretty Saro. It’s not the first tune a lot of people in 2018 might think of as an immigrant’s tale, but Giddens put it in context. “Remember, nobody leaves their home unless they have to.”
Giddens’ set with more of her talented circle this Saturday night is sold out, but Turrisi is leading his own group at Symphony Space tomorrow night, Nov 15 at 7:30 PM and there are still tickets available. Those thirty and under can get in for $20.