Lincoln Center’s 2017 American Songbook series came to a close May 13 with a concert that justified renaming it the “Americana Songbook.” Rhiannon Giddens — who has come to exemplify the musical genre through both Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Grammy-winning band she co-founded, and her solo work — delivered a stirring evening of music showcasing her glorious voice and deep-rooted interest in social issues past and present.
The show included many songs from her latest album, Freedom Highway, as well as a number of covers, including Bob Dylan’s “Spanish Mary,” which she recorded as a member of the musical collective The New Basement Tapes. Giddens kicked off the show with the song backed by multi-instrumentalists Dirk Powell and Hubby Jenkins, bassist Jason Sypher and drummer Jamie Dick, all of whom had also performed on the recording, giving the number a striking musical cohesion. Other performers included a three-man horn section recruited especially for the evening, and Giddens’ sister Lalenja Harrington on back-up vocals and nephew Justin Harrington rapping on the original “Better Get It Right the First Time.”
“The more we know about those times, the more we know about now,” Giddens told the audience at the start of the show. She was referring to the eras of slavery, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement, which informed much of her material. Such new songs as “We Could Fly,” “Julie” and “At the Purchaser’s Option” (the last inspired by a real-life 19th-century classified ad attempting to sell a “Negro Wench” with a nine-month-old baby) registered with deep poignancy. Equally shattering was the elegiac “Birmingham Sunday,” about the 1963 Alabama church bombing that killed four young girls.
The evening was not all downbeat, however. “There’s a lot of stuff going on, I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Giddens commented as the crowd laughed. “You gotta find ways to cope.” Her way of coping turned out to be a funky, biting rendition of Jean Knight’s classic “Mr. Big Stuff,” dedicated to a certain figure in Washington, D.C. After performing the number to the delighted crowd, the singer let out a deeply satisfied sigh.
Giddens’ vocals — which reveal her extensive operatic training — were front-and-center on such show highlights as Aretha Franklin‘s “Do Right Woman” and Patsy Cline‘s “She’s Got You,” which gave the originals a run for their money; and the Mack Gordon-written “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” which Ethel Waters recorded in the 1930s. “There’s a lot of good stuff to be found,” Giddens said of the last song. “It makes all the digging worthwhile.” For a rousing rendition of Mary Chapin Carpenter‘s “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” she ceded the spotlight to Jenkins, a fellow member of Carolina Chocolate Drops, who handled lead vocals.
Giddens is equally accomplished as a musician and played banjo and fiddle extensively, the latter on “Dimanche Apres-Midi (The Creole Song).” She told the crowd that the banjo was a replica of an 1858 instrument that “has the sound of Africa still in it.”
The show ended on a stirring note with renditions of The Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway” and, as an encore, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head,” which inspired call-and-response participation from the audience that, for a few minutes, made the elegant venue feel like an old-time revival meeting.
“The Love We Almost Had”
“At the Purchaser’s Option”
“Following the North Star”
“We Could Fly”
“Dimanche Apres-Midi (The Creole Song)”
“Mr. Big Stuff”
“Do Right Woman”
“Children, Go Where I Send Thee”
“Underneath the Harlem Moon”
“Better Get It Right the First Time”
“She Got You”
“Up Above My Head”