“I shall not be moved,” the Michigan Theater’s packed crowd sang in unison at Rhiannon Giddens’s Nov. 8 live show. As Giddens reluctantly backed away from the microphone and beckoned the crowd to take over the chorus of the spiritual, she was overcome with the pure happiness of the audience.
Early in her music career, as she recounted to the audience before the song, Giddens was taught the centuries-old spiritual by fellow North Carolinian and legendary Black traditional fiddler Joe Thompson. On stage in Ann Arbor, Giddens watched as her musical journey came full circle: Just like Thompson before her, Giddens just passed down a musical tradition much larger than herself, Thompson or anybody else in the concert hall that night.
Since that first encounter with Thompson, Giddens has become a multi-talented musical force, whether as artistic director of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad initiative, host of an opera podcast or collaborator on Daniel Lanois’s award-winning soundtrack for the video game “Red Dead Redemption 2.” At her live show, the full range of her talents was on display, as she switched frequently between playing viola (as a fiddle) and banjo. Giddens also showcased her tremendous vocal talent beyond her primary bluegrass style — singing a traditional Italian love song, Giddens transformed into an opera singer, embracing vibrato and melisma. It wasn’t the only time she extended beyond conventional bluegrass sounds: On different songs, Giddens scatted and vocalized with her hands in a similar manner to the iconic coyote call from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
Giddens was joined on stage by bassist Jason Sypher and her partner, multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, both of whom did an exceptional job supporting Giddens. Turrisi’s minimalist percussion performances enlivened the ensemble’s musical texture, but his most memorable moments came when he played accordion, whether as a soloist or in musical dialogue with Giddens.
As Turrisi explained, he had a difficult time obtaining a visa as an accordionist to travel to the U.S. from his native Italy. Ultimately, he received a visa that labeled him an “alien of extraordinary talent,” a label Turrisi jokingly and humbly embraced before showcasing just how extraordinary his talent is. While Turrisi’s heavily European-influenced accordion playing might seem like an awkward pairing with Giddens’s Americana sound, his talent and versatility allowed them to mesh seamlessly, creating a polished and authentic bluegrass sound that is also unique and memorable.
Throughout the performance, Giddens always made sure to acknowledge the musicians who influenced her, especially those who never received the recognition they deserved. Introducing the classic blues song “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” Giddens told the story of Alberta Hunter, the artist who originally recorded the song. Hunter was a relatively successful blues musician who owned the copyright to her music, a rarity for Black musicians of the 1920s. However, she lost her passion for performing, so she lied about her age in order to become a nurse, a position she held for 20 years before briefly returning to music later in her life. Hunter’s story is incredible, but it’s been sadly forgotten. Giddens explained that Googling “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” does not return Hunter’s name as its performer, but Eric Clapton’s (to the understandable collective groans of the audience of the Michigan Theater). It was sad to see that Black blues artists still struggle for proper attribution, even in an age of unlimited information. However, Giddens did justice to Hunter by reverently performing the song in her bluesy style.
The themes of hardship prevalent throughout early blues music clearly resonate deeply with Giddens, who spent most of 2020 in quarantine with Turrisi in Ireland, forced to watch from afar as her home country was marred by tragedy and turmoil. While this time in isolation gave Giddens and Turrisi the chance to record their latest album, it was also a chance for Giddens to self-reflect, and she shared those reflections on stage. After opening the show with the somber “Calling Me Home” by Alice Gerrard, Giddens lamented those lost to COVID-19 who died alone, uncomfortably and distant from their loved ones. Later, questioning what she could do to support the Black Lives Matter movement, Giddens recalled her mentor Joe Thompson, a Black pioneer of the dying string band genre who had to fight just to maintain who he was. “That was protest,” Giddens said of Thompson’s mere existence in a society designed to oppress him at every turn. “That’s the most beautiful form of protest there is, I think.”
Despite the heavy themes that loomed large over the concert, the context of Giddens’s music never overshadowed her performance; if anything, Giddens’s insight made her show even more impactful. Giddens is an extremely thoughtful and compelling speaker — to see firsthand how her beliefs and values influence her musicianship was powerful and memorable. As Giddens reminded the audience before her last song, “We’re in for a tricky couple of decades.” While our future is uncertain, we have music. Our future demands an understanding of our past, and Rhiannon Giddens is the champion of the history we need. She’s also an outstanding musician who was amazing to see live at the Michigan Theater.
Daily Arts Writer Jack Moeser can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.