Words and Photos By Melissa Groth
Rhiannon Giddens’ performance at the Lincoln Theatre was a lesson in the origins of country and folk music. Her first solo album, Tomorrow is my Turn, is a collection of covers curated from old blues and country recordings, African and Appalachian folk songs. It’s nothing short of magical to watch her perform these songs with her Carolina Chocolate Drops band backing her.
Giddens has one of those voices that seems totally effortless. She opens her mouth and beautiful music comes out from a world none of us have access to. The only time you’ll see her sweat is while performing “S ioma’ rud tha dhith orm,” a Gaelic folk song not present on her album. It’s a fast-paced tongue twister of a song, beautiful in its guttural syllables, sung flawlessly and without one stumble by Giddens. It brought the audience to its feet for one of three standing ovations given that evening.
Giddens takes on the spirit and the life of the songs she sings. Her personality and demeanor transform with each song from confident and sultry to heartbroken and sullen. She makes you feel like you’re watching an Odetta or Nina Simone performance. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. Every two or three songs she would break character explain the origins of what she’d just sung, with a “Thanks y’all” and southern charm that make her seem approachable when just a minute ago she was an untouchable goddess of song.
It was surprising to me that Giddens played fiddle or banjo on only a few songs because apart from a powerful singer she is also a phenomenal musician. She wrote the music to a handful of Bob Dylan b-sides with The New Basement Tapes for their 2014 album Lost on the River, from which she performed four songs. But for this performance she left the music to her band for the most part, which though surprising was not disappointing. These are talented guys. I’d never seen anyone play the bones before. Standing bass, cello, mandolin, banjo, bones, cajon, fiddle all brought old folk songs, and not-so-old ones, to life. They finished the set with Blu Cantrell’s 2001 single “Hit ‘em up Style (Oops!),” which I always thought was kind of a goofy song, but Giddens makes it an anthem.
Bhi Bhiman set the bar pretty low as the opener. His one-man acoustic on-my-soapbox songs are better suited for an open mic at a coffee shop than a touring gig. Composing songs of social commentary is tricky business; try too hard and you’re not doing anyone any favors. His songs were subtle like an elephant, and tedious after a few verses. He has a few good tunes, including his single “Guttersnipe,” and I appreciate his music for what it is, but lackluster stage presence and a lot of “I’m gonna teach you all a lesson now” made the audience tap their toes not in time with the rhythm, but with impatience for the end of the set. He did finish it off with a lighthearted rendition of Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” that everyone gladly whistled along.