Rhiannon Giddens filled the Folly with her gorgeous voice and some history lessons last night

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Rhiannon Giddens with Bhi Bhiman
The Folly Theater
Sunday, October 11

At first, Rhiannon Giddens’ silhouette was enough.

Giddens and her band took the stage last night as shadows against a blue-lit scrim. As they strapped in and tuned up between a quartet of tall, dim, old-fashioned, Singin’ in the Rain-syle street lamps, it was obvious this wasn’t the typical spare, simple Cyprus Avenue show. Then the lights came up, and Giddens, in a simple, elegant red dress and bare feet, owned the stage.

“That’s something I co-wrote with Bob Dylan,” she said, smiling after opener “Spanish Mary” — a mysterious blend of banjo, folk balladry and torch song — died away. That song, like the later “Duncan and Jimmy” came from The New Basement Tapes project, for which musicians added music to unearthed Dylan lyrics. 

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After that, the stage became a movie set, with spare lighting highlighting each mood change. After a lush country interlude with Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” and the Hank Cochran and Patsy Cline standard “She’s Got You,” the band shifted toward the acoustic “Shake Sugaree.” That song is generally a rollicking, bouncy tune, and it was here, too, but Giddens captured the crowd with stillness. Centering the song on the mournful refrain “Everything I have is done and gone,” a spotlit Giddens expressed that sadness with only her eyes, her voice and a regretful smile.

When the band then soared into Odetta’s “Waterboy,” the lights (and the crowd) came alive with the hugeness of Giddens’ world-weary, growling alto and the crash of the band in the wide open spaces of the song. Giddens’ whole body was part of the song: hands, elbows , hips, knees, feet. The crowd swept into an ovation at the end of that one, almost as if they couldn’t help it. “Wow,” said Giddens,” grinning. “I should have saved that one till the end.”

The entire current line-up of Giddens’ other band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, was onstage, plus James Sypher on bass and Jamie Dick (who played with mallets, brushes, shakers — anything except drumsticks) on drums. Hubby Jenkins’ banjo, guitar and hamboning were a highlight, and he tore up a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Can’t Nobody Hide From God.” Malcolm Parson’s cello was the secret ingredient in nearly every song, whether he was subtly channeling Stephane Grappelli’s swing in unexpected places or providing the drone for the show-stopping Scots-Gaelic “Mouth Music.” Giddens’ own turns on banjo and fiddle were equally amazing.  

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Midway through the show, Giddens declared to the audience: “Something I have to do is shine a light on pieces of history that need to be seen.” That drive was apparent in every song choice. Not many artists pause partway through a show to discuss the history of banjos (“They were a black instrument for the first hundred years in America,” she reminded us), the 80-year run of minstrelsy as the most popular American music, and the way European and African music came together during that period.

More importantly, no one else shows a full theater what that sounds like, with a replica of an 1850s banjo and a pair of banjo tunes to demonstrate the blend. As the band worked through the tunes, with Parson’s cello taking the fiddle parts and Jenkins and multi-instrumentalist Rowan Corbett driving frantic and complex hambone rhythms, the echoes of Ireland, France and Africa were obvious.

As Gidden’s kept going through songs like “Factory Girl” — an Irish tune she’d rewritten to reflect the tragic collapse of a Bangladesh factory — and “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man,” from old-time entertainer Cousin Emmy, it was the best kind of learning.  Giddens’ own songs, like “Moonshiner’s Daughter” and “Angel City,” which was originally going to be titled “Kansas City,” were too-brief peeks into what she can do as a songwriter.  

The band’s encore was a pair of tunes by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (Gidden’s gave the crowd an A++ for the huge cheer Tharpe’s name evoked.) She invited the crowd to sing “Up Above My Head,” and the last part of the Folly’s almost cinematic transformation was complete. It had been a ’30s jazz club, a dusty field down south, a rickety old front porch, and a honky tonk. It seemed perfect that on this Sunday, it ended as the best kind of church. 

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Leftovers: Opener Bhi Bhiman, a St. Louis native of Sri Lankan descent, opened with a set of his own intimate but heartfelt and political acoustic tunes. Fans of Madisen Ward and Mama Bear would love his rich, sincere voice, and he took it through songs like “Up In Arms,” told from the point of view of Black Panthers’co-founder Huey P. Newton, and the Staple Singers “Freedom Highway.” Bhiman’s sound was way, way bigger than just one man and a guitar.

Setlist:
Spanish Mary
Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind (Dolly Parton cover)
She’s Got You (Patsy Cline cover)
Shake Sugaree
Waterboy (Odetta cover)
Pair of 1855 fiddle tunes
Factory Girl
Moonshiner’s Daughter
Ruby
Can’t Nobody Hide From God (Blind Willie Johnson cover)
Underneath a Harlem Moon
Angel City
Come Love Come
Mouth Music—Gaelic
Duncan and Jimmy
—-
The  Lonesome Road/Up Above My Head (Sister Rosetta Tharpe covers)

Bhi Bhiman’s Setlist:

Kim Chee Line
Travelin’ Shoes (Chamber Brothers cover)
Up in Arms
Movin’ to Brussels
There Goes the Neighborhood
Guttersnipe
Freedom Highway (Staple Singers Cover

Categories: Music