Late during her sold-out show at Symphony Space this past evening, Rhiannon Giddens revealed that she and the band had arrived at eleven in the morning and over the course of the next eight hours or so, basically pulled a set together from scratch. For the past couple of weeks, Giddens has been given a residency here: her first show as a bandleader this past Wednesday was frequently transcendent, a salute to important, politically fearless black women musicians from decades past. While tonight’s coda was just as richly informed by history, there was more of a focus on current-day artists, including the vastly talented cast which Giddens had assembled.
That she obviously had no fear of being upstaged by the charisma and powerful pipes of Toshi Reagon speaks to Giddens’ own presence. And although Reagon brought the house down with a couple of singalongs, she also seemed perfectly content to chill in her chair, stage left, and play subtle rhythm guitar during bluesy broadsides by Giddens or powerful multi-instrumentalist singer Amythyst Kiah.
Who is a force of nature and then some. What a discovery. With her darkly looming alto voice and nimble chops on both banjo and acoustic guitar, she was impossible to turn away from. Her most unforgettable moment of the night was a new song, Black Like That, a savagely insightful commentary on racism both from outside and within African-American circles. Its withering call-and-response – for example, “Can’t pass the paper bag test, ‘cause I’m black like that” – may be iconic someday. Another standout number – from a forthcoming Giddens-helmed album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, featuring several other black women banjo players – turned a rare, redemptive focus on the character of Polly Ann in the blues song John Henry. Inspired by a Mississippi hill country version of the song, this version has Polly Ann knowingly explaining that if we can just slow down that steam drill, we can all be free…and nobody, John Henry included, has to die.
Giddens’ most riveting turn in the spotlight was when she lead a rich tapestry of voices – which also included her gospel-singing sister Lalenja Harrington and Birds of Chicago’s Allison Russell – through a harrowing a-cappella original with a 19th century chain gang flavor. This one was based on an all-too-familiar narrative, a slave woman repeatedly raped and tortured and finally getting revenge. But when the men find the overseer’s bloody corpse, they come for mama with the rope ,and she ends up in the tree – the final chorus is “And she won’t come down.” Chills.
Another high point was a tantalizingly brief Nina Simone medley, reprising what Giddens and a slightly different lineup had explored a couple of days earlier here. The version of Four Women was even more directly, knowingly intense than the take Giddens had delivered earlier in the week.
Russell distinguished herself most on clarinet, with a full, envelopingly moody tone. Harrington delivered spoken-word interludes that ranged from political and spiritually-inspired, to a surreal dream sequence. The songs from the forthcoming Giddens album spanned folk-pop, to more austere and rustic sounds infused with rich accordion, piano, organ and electric piano from Francesco Turrisi, over a dynamic pulse from bassist Jason Cypher and drummer Attis Clopton. For the encore, they romped through a mighty take of the Staples Singers’ Freedom Highway, the title track to Giddens’ most recent album.
This residency was a real coup for Symphony Space. Booking here hasn’t been this good since talent buyer Laura Kaminsky left a few years ago. This fall has featured many artists who’ve never played the Upper West Side before, including some of the creme de la creme from the Barbes scene. One especially auspicious upcoming show is this Nov 29 at 7:30 PM with one of those groups, multi-instrumentalist Dennis Lichtman and playfully torchy singer/tapdancer Tamar Korn’s popular western swing band Brain Cloud. You can get in for $20 if you’re thirty or under, and there are all kinds of drink specials at the bar all night.