On Saturday night at the intimate Kentucky Country Day theater, Rhiannon Giddens and her excellent back-up musicians wowed a sold-out crowd.
Giddens performed a number of songs before a wildly enthusiastic audience. I'll mention just a few of the highlights.
Rhiannon Giddens sang "Waterboy", one of her well-known songs. It's an old song, previously made popular by folksinger Odetta, where the singer is calling the waterboy to come out of hiding or she will tell on him to his pa.
In Rhiannon's performance of the song, if I were the "waterboy" I would've come out quick, fearing the singer far more than anything any pa could do.
She also covered Patsy Cline's "She’s Got You". Giddens has a voice to rival Patsy Cline. But her delivery was quite different.
Sitting in the fourth row, I felt the intensity of the anger in the song towards the woman who had taken her man. Giddens was not just the voice of a wronged or sad woman. Hers was the voice of an angry, possibly homicidal woman. If I were the guilty party, I would have made haste to exit the auditorium and relinquish all claims to the man in question. That was how powerful her rendition of the song was.
Giddens also sang songs based on research into true stories of African slaves. One song, "At the Purchaser’s Option", was heart wrenching. It told the story of a young slave woman, the mother of a nine-month-old, who was listed for sale with her baby available too, "at the purchaser’s option.”
Leading into the song, Rhiannon explained that as a mother she could imagine the heartbreak of being separated from her children. The audience felt that heartbreak on a visceral level.
The most moving song for me was based on the fable that some African slaves had the ability to fly but while some still could fly others had forgotten that trait after they had been brought to this country in chains.
Rhiannon told of a mother and daughter. The mother had carried from her mother the story of the ability to fly. She told her daughter that when the daughter felt the tingling in her arms she would know she had the ability. At some point the daughter began to feel that tingling in her arms and she and her mother flew away from slavery and into paradise.
I'm about as white-bread Caucasian as they come and by training and experience, a lawyer who deals in facts. So far as I know I have no African-American ancestors. So far as I know I also am not particularly susceptible to suggestions. But as Giddens sang, I literally began to feel both my arms tingle. The feeling spread up through the back of my scalp. I've never felt anything like this before. As Rhiannon sang, I began to wonder if I too had the ability to fly.
After the concert, we briefly stopped by the merchandise table to have a couple of CDs signed by Rhiannon. I told her it was a transcendental concert and her singing gave me goosebumps.
I used the word “goosebumps” for lack of a better word at the time. But it is not sufficient to describe what I felt at this concert.
With a power that may be older than education, careers, and racial divisions, Giddens’ songs, storytelling and truly amazing voice transports her audience into another world. Rhiannon Giddens has a voice and a delivery that is a once-in-a- generation. If you have the opportunity to see her in person do so.