Sometimes the frequent gig goer gets lucky and catches a big performance with a full band in a smaller, more intimate venue that results in a truly fabulous night. Rhiannon Giddens, on her latest tour, was clearly playing to 1000+ venues with a 7 piece big name band which must have made very little economic sense in the 400 seat Stables. Built by Cleo Lane and Johnny Dankworth as an intimate jazz venue with phenomenal acoustics, The Stables is a really enjoyable place to see live music – lots of parking and friendly volunteers who staff the hall make it a warm and comfortable music lover’s delight. Giddens has had an amazingly busy year with almost nonstop touring building on the huge success of her Freedom Highway album which was produced by T Bone Burnett and which cemented her departure from the far more roots based Carolina Chocolate Drops. She has really spread her wings and soared, winning multiple awards and even a “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation worth $625k.
Her performance tonight showed that she deserves all of the acclaim and more. She really did not put a foot wrong with a scintillating set that comprised several of her historical songs including At The Purchaser’s Option which tells the harrowing story of the sale of a slave, with or without her baby – at the purchaser’s option. She transformed this tragic occurrence into a defiant cry against all it stood for. Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Odetta are clearly two of her heroines and one of the frequent highlights was her astonishing vocal power, Water Boy resonated around the hall to spine chilling effect. The pace was relentless and another peak was Rhiannon’s homage to Aretha Franklin with a beautiful and soaring Do Right Woman. The tight band around her gave her massive support and her long time Chocolate Drop band member, Hubby Jenkins, was superb on banjo, guitar, mandolin and even bones percussion. Dirk Powell who has frequently played with Rhiannon and who is a hugely respected multi instrumentalist duetted with her to wonderful effect which contrasted superbly with the delicate duet she sang with her sister, Lalenja Harrington on the traditional Pretty Saro.
Kaia Kater, looking like a young Rhiannon and of African-Canadian descent, was the support and her delicate banjo playing and reflective lyrics set a very atmospheric Carolina mood.
This was truly an epic evening of fabulous music; the audience floated out knowing that they had seen a performer absolutely at the top of her game and I cannot imagine that it will be long until Rhiannon Giddens is as big a star internationally as Alison Krauss. Americana and Roots does not come much better than this.