Live Review: Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, Union Chapel Islington – 11th May 2023

There are unarguably few more prominent figures in the world of folk, roots and americana than Rhiannon Giddens. Twenty or so minutes into tonight’s Union Chapel gig, Giddens can only take a step back to accept the crowd’s heartfelt applause upon the acknowledgment of her just recently announced Pulitzer Prize for Music Award (co-winner with Michael Abels for their opera ‘Omar’). She may not have even made that particular affirmation were it not for the interjection of her partner and musical accompanist Francesco Turrisi who noted “Oh, and we should also mention the Pulitzer.” All of which had already followed a round of previously hefty audience laudation in acknowledgment of her 2022 Grammy award for best folk album. One assumes that newly found mantelpiece spacing or additional shelving at the Giddens’ Limerick residence may be soon required.

Giddens and Turrisi appear to be in high spirits. During a Little Hat Jones cover, ‘Bye Bye Baby Blues’, Giddens simply vocally mimics a trumpet’s ‘way wah’. Despite their dual musical ambidexterity and excellence there’s plainly limits to even this two pieced ensemble’s talents. After a ballet inspired piece (more of which below) Giddens jests the crowd to “Please, just imagine there’s some dancers,” and although her fiddle playing throughout the night seems close to perfect, she humorously relates a tale of being admonished by an audience member’s post after a recent Aberdeen gig for incorrect bowing where a particular Shetland fiddle piece is concerned – tut tut Ms Giddens. The crowd are also treated to a slightly sassy sounding preview from her new album ‘You’re The One’ due for release in August.

Like many an artist, Giddens wouldn’t wish to be tied down to just one thing, but you feel that her major musical raison d’etre is as a conduit linking the multicultural future of roots music with the prominent but under told, black history of its past. As she states herself mid concert “It’s important to connect the past to present”. The aforementioned ballet number ‘Lucy Negro Redux’ sets intricate balladry to Caroline Randall Williams’ poetry suggesting a what if Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady Sonnets’ may have actually been based on a black woman? During a cover of Ethel Waters’ ‘Underneath our Harlem Moon’ Giddens lays tribute to Waters’ clever song writing subtlety that provoked a subliminal social challenging and eventual change during 1920’s American ‘minstrel music’ times. Giddens own ‘At The Purchaser’s Option’ emotionally imparts the same phrase once used during the slave trade, appallingly, should the child of the “purchased” slave be required or not. On ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ the Union Chapel’s congregation has a chance to provide a gentle, but poignant vocal accompaniment to Giddens’s banjo picking and Turrisi’s accordion hum.

To bring the main set to a close Giddens covered Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’. Simon himself had last year personally requested she join him on a televised special to play this very song, even adjusting the lyrics of the fifty year old Nixon era number to suit more modern times and a more modern singer’s views. Understandably Giddens seems overwhelmed to be hand-picked by one of America’s finest songwriters, but she need not be. Simon, you can’t help but think, would be in equal awe of her.

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