Thursday, October 5, 2017

Do Right Woman

As Tom Petty tributes go, Rhiannon Giddens' "Don't Back Down" was goosebump-inducing.

Of course, every note that comes out of her mouth is pretty much magnificent. And the beauty of hearing that live was that the opportunity dropped into my lap.

Scrolling through Facebook late in the day, I saw that a friend had posted "just now" saying that she had an extra ticket to the Rhiannon Giddens show at the Modlin Center tonight. She offered to gift it to the first person who called her.

You'd better believe I was quick on the draw with my land line. Yes, land line.

Thanking her profusely for the ticket, she graciously insisted that it was nothing more than an overdue thank you to me for all the years I'd ghostwritten a gardening column for her. We made plans to meet up and I marveled at my good fortune.

The parking lot was so crowded that there was an attendant directing people around, a sure sign that I was about to see someone who was a really big deal.

Once in our seats, my friend told me about all the times she'd seen Giddens' first band (the Carolina Chocolate Drops) play, including FloydFest and a $2 outdoor show in Ashland 8 years ago. The woman next to her had seen the Drops almost as many times. I shocked them by admitting I'd never seen her or the band.

Both told me I had no idea how impressed I was going to be.

They were right. With a seasoned band - banjo, acoustic and electric guitars and bass, drums, fiddle, keyboard and mandolin - that traded instruments backing her up, Giddens asked how the crowd was doing and announced they were going to do some fiddle tunes for us before unleashing her operatic voice.

Even her ensemble was noteworthy: a bustier over a long, multi-tiered skirt under a bronze and brown brocade duster, all of which moved as she danced and swayed to the music.

She wore her influences proudly on her sleeve and in her song choices, doing songs by civil rights activist Odetta, Aretha Franklin and Pops Staples, among others. This was a woman who knew her backstory and wanted to share it.

And that powerful voice. Whether wowing us with her range, her scatting or her interpretation of an African folktale, she held the room in thrall with it, all the while also playing fiddle or banjo.

Her appreciation for history was apparent in many of her song choices. One was based on a slave for sale poster she'd seen in which it was stated that the woman for sale had a 9 month old baby and the purchaser had the option to take the child with the mother or not. The resulting song, "At the Purchaser's Option" was equal parts history lesson and heartbroken mother's lament.

Just as moving was her cover of Richard Farina's "Birmingham Sunday" about the four little girls killed in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, while the black spiritual "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" got a faster, more swinging interpretation.

During the intermission, a woman near me commented on how animated Giddens was onstage, dancing and moving about in a way she hadn't done when playing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. "She had to be just part of the ensemble then," the fan noted.

When the band returned, Giddens came out and heaved a sigh of relief. "A musician's worst nightmare is to come back after intermission and everyone went home." I think it was safe to say that not a soul gave up the opportunity to hear more from her pipes and the talent around her.

She talked about walking through Carytown earlier today and how she'd lived near there for a year, one of many places she could call home. "You have to have a home everywhere when you're a musician," she said.

They did an old North Carolina ballad and a sibling gospel harmony tune with her sister doing the harmonizing. Then she said, "There comes a time in every show when it's time for accordion," and the band launched into a Cajun waltz and a Creole two-step.

Sharing more cultural history, she told us of learning about what were called "coon songs" - full of cliched black stereotypes - and then sang one she'd written called "Underneath a Harlem Moon." It was the opposite of a coon song.

We don't pick no cotton
Picking cotton is taboo
All we pick is numbers
And that include you white folks, too

But it was when she mentioned how tough the past few days had been and mentioned Tom Petty's death that she said she heard an intake of breath from someone near the front. That's right, Rhiannon Giddens was going to cover "I Won't Back Down," imbuing it with heartfelt singing and blistering fiddle work, and providing the audience with a cathartic way to honor Petty and further appreciate her voice.

"Thanks for showing what Richmond can bring!" she said to the sold out Modlin Center crowd. "You brought it!"

She closed with Pops Staples' "Freedom Highway," which is also the title song to her latest album and it sounded just as fitting in 2017 as when Pops wrote it in 1965 during the apex of the Civil Rights movement (she called it Pops' Don't Back Down). And for the encore, she covered Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

A lesser singer, one not as talented or confident, might not have pulled off interpreting so many legends, but a lesser artist also might not have been so in tune with creating a set list that ran the gamut of Negro spirituals to folk songs to civil rights anthems to proto-rock, gospel and soul, while making each wholly her own.

The warning from my friend had been spot on. Never having seen Giddens before, there was no way I could have been prepared for what she delivered on that stage tonight. I was blown away by her voice, her song choices and her captivating stage presence.

No question, it was a girl crush.

At the reception after the show ended, I tried again to thank my friend properly for sharing her extra ticket with me. "I'm just glad you could come," she insisted, saying she was grateful to share the evening with a fellow music-lover.

Consider this post an ode to a landline...and a friend generous enough to give me an evening listening to the phenomenal Rhiannon Giddens.

The stellar Tom Petty tribute was just icing on the cake.

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