Rhiannon Giddens brought tough truths and stunning songs to the Power Center
Artists have a long history of transforming pain (communal or personal) into something beautiful -- and right now, no one does that better than celebrated roots musician Rhiannon Giddens, who played an Ann Arbor Summer Festival main stage show at the Power Center on Wednesday night.
Giddens, who first drew mainstream attention as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and now appears on the TV drama Nashville, opened Wednesday’s two-hour set with her haunting take on Bob Dylan’s “Spanish Mary,” during which Giddens’ gorgeous vocal storytelling countered the song’s heavy, thumping drumbeat; and “The Love We Almost Had,” a jaunty chronicle of longing and regret that Giddens concluded with some grade-A scatting.
Dressed in a navy blue corset top and bolero jacket (like the one she wears on the cover of her latest album, Freedom Highway) and a dark, floral print skirt with an asymmetrical hem, Giddens -- barefoot, and with hair streaked bright red -- was accompanied by four male musicians on stage. Plus, Giddens’ sister, Lalenja Harrington, appeared occasionally to provide additional vocals for songs, including the siblings’ spare, piercing gospel duet “One More Day.” (The Giddens Sisters featured the song on their 2013 album, I Know I’ve Been Changed.)
But gospel is only one influence on Giddens' music, which pointedly draws inspiration from some of American history’s most painful facets: slavery, racial violence, and economic disparity. One of the show’s most harrowing numbers, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” was inspired by a newspaper advertisement for a young female slave who could be sold with or without her nine-month-old baby. “I read that, and it just broke my heart,” Giddens said.
Shortly thereafter, Giddens’ vocals soared on the wistful “We Could Fly,” inspired by an African-American folktale about slaves who secretly had the power of flight before they forgot how; then she shifted gears into the plantation song “Waterboy,” which begins with a plaintive, startling, sustained cry that cuts through silence.
Mixed into Wednesday night’s program were Creole tunes, bluegrass instrumentals, spirituals (like “Children Go Where I Send Thee”), and songs by some heavy-hitting women in popular music, like Aretha Franklin (“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”), Sister Rosetta Tharp (“That Lonesome Road,” which served as Giddens’ rollicking, one-song encore), and Patsy Cline (“She’s Got You,” a bluesy honky-tonk scorcher that nearly blew the roof off the place).
Many times, Giddens played what she explained was a replica of an 1858 banjo. The instrument produced a raw sound that resembled a gourd-based banjo, used in the time of slavery. “Once I touched it, I knew it was mine,” Giddens said before launching into “Julie,” a song about a conversation between a mistress and her soon-to-be-liberated female slave.
Giddens next introduced “Underneath the Harlem Moon” as a “coon song,” noting that one song in the genre was titled “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” This sparked a small titter of nervous laughter within the audience, which prompted Giddens to say, “It’s all right to be uncomfortable. It’s an uncomfortable history we share.”
Yes, in addition to Giddens’ musical talents, her humane ability to push through inevitable moments of pain and awkwardness -- which inevitably arise when confronting slavery and racial violence in a communal space -- lends her artistry a sublime power and vitality.
So when Giddens sings the mournful “Birmingham Sunday,” about the four young girls who died when a bomb went off in their Baptist church during the Civil Rights era, and reminds you that a similar hate-crime happened in Charleston only last year, you absorb these ugly truths in the spirit in which they’re offered -- which is to say, a disarming kind of openness.
For Giddens, through her music, persists in asking us all to revisit and take a long, hard look at the most shameful, brutal moments of our country’s past and consider their ramifications in the present (“Better Get It Right the First Time”).
Even so, she ended her regular set on a hopeful note, by way of both a stirring performance of The Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway” and a speech that hit home for many.
“The news is tough these days. It’s really tough. But this,” Giddens said, gesturing toward the crowd, “is what makes it all OK. We all just have to remember that this is what being human is. It’s being with each other.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.