Rhiannon Giddens @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 1 Dec
With minimal staging and simple lighting, complex issues are tackled head-on by the stunning musicianship of Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi
With her band Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens has helped to shine a light on the oft-overlooked contribution made by black musicians to America’s folk music tradition, and now, together with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, she sets out to draw together these threads on an even grander scale, exploring the complex legacies and winding pathways that span from North Africa to the Celtic fringe and across the Atlantic to deliver the building blocks of American folk music.
The South Carolina-born, Oberlin college-trained virtuoso is a perfect tour guide, beautifully tying together the different strands from 19th-century minstrel tunes to operatic Sicilian ballads and the Harlem renaissance. Throughout she’s never afraid to tackle complex issues head-on, exploring how race, migration and oppression have shaped the musical traditions we see today.
The stark arrangements of Giddens and Turrisi's recent collaborative album, There Is No Other, strip these songs back to their core essence, allowing their stunning musicianship to take centre stage.
The sheer breadth of the material seems to present the duo, joined by a double bassist for some of the set, with a challenge to relish, with Giddens ecstatically scatting over the Irish folk ballad Molly Brannigan and nailing the lifts and falls of Purcell’s Dido’s Lament.
The earthier tracks are no less stunning than the classical setpieces, with folk staple Wayfaring Stranger and Giddens’ own gospel-flecked He Will See You Through soaring to the rafters of the Usher Hall on little more than lightly plucked banjo and piano.
Best of all though is a showstopping version of Ethel Waters' 1930s vaudeville piece Underneath the Harlem Moon, with Giddens introducing it by telling the story of black musicians who found themselves only able to perform in Jewish clubs.
The staging of these songs is minimal, with simple lighting and the three musicians huddled together centre stage, but it’s all the more effective for it, offering a glimpse into how these songs might have been presented when they were first heard. It all comes together into a richly rewarding project, picking up a Grammy nomination for this year’s I’m On My Way and shining a light on the complex web of genealogy and history that has come to inform contemporary music.
As Giddens comes back on for a brief encore, she shakes the hand of a tiny tot in the audience. There’s no one better at sharing this history with a new generation.