Those of us lucky enough to have attended Rhiannon Giddens (above) sold out show at Whelan’s in early April of this year will no doubt recall her pledge to return to play Dublin again in 2017. True to her word she’s back in town this evening at an equally crammed Vicar Street, a further endorsement of the pulling power of the exceptionally talented Giddens and the outstanding band of musicians that travel with her.
Very much part of her entourage at present is support act Kaia Kater (below), the 22-year-old Canadian virtuoso who studied banjo under the guidance of Rhiannon Giddens. Her set is both technically brilliant but also an indication of the distinction that Kater possesses as a songwriter in her own right. With two albums already under her belt the highlight of her set is the title track from her most recent release Nine Pin. "This is my first time in Ireland and I can’t understand a word anyone is saying but wow you are livelier than the English crowds" she jokes opening her set. Her impressive appearance will no doubt boost sales for her appearance at The Temple Bar Trad Festival in January 2018.
Freedom Highway, released by Rhiannon Giddens earlier this year, is without doubt one of the most politically charged albums of the year, tackling issues such as racism and immigration head on and while there is much pent up anger on the album, Giddens, in the live environment, delivers the material in a non-judgemental yet questioning manner. Early in the set and by way of introducing the albums most powerful song At The Purchasers Option, she speaks openly ("my biggest teacher is history") yet not overly hypercritically about slavery and the motivation for much of the album’s material, bemoaning the fact that ‘there’s still so much negative stuff out there at the moment’.
Capturing the essence of immigration in one sentence "Nobody leaves home without a good reason,"she proceeds to deliver a beautiful acapella style version of Coolings traditional Jazzmen’s classic blues lament Pretty Saro, aided by her sister Lalenja on backing vocals.
Despite the often-depressing topics featured in the core material the night is all about celebration rather than woe. "I’ve been coming to Ireland for ten years now and it’s the first time I’ve played this beautiful venue, don’t get me wrong though, I also love Whelan’s," Giddens adds, before reminding the audience, with a few words of Irish, that her two children attend Gael Scoil in Limerick.
It may only be less than eight months from her last Dublin gig but the setlist is refreshingly varied, having kicked off in fine style with Ola Belle Reed’s Going To Write Me A Letter she ups the tempo even higher with a melody of Fiddle Tune/Pateroller and Black Annie.
Similar to her Whelan’s show her band consist of Carolina Chocolate Drop colleague Hubby Jenkins (guitar, mandolin, banjo and bones), Jason Sypher (bass), James Dick (drums) and the albums co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell. An additional two musicians are on stage this evening, a trumpet player and her sister Lalenja as backing vocalist. The family connection is further enhanced when she is joined on stage by her nephew Justin Harrington for the rap chorus on the gangland killing themed song Better Get It Right The First Time from the current album, establishing that rap actually can be sympathetic to folk and blues music.
A classic delivery of Waterboy follows, the traditional song immortalised by singer and human rights activist Odetta, now owned by Giddens whose striking vocal range is on full display before delivering another well-chosen cover Underneath The Harlem Moon written by the pianist and 40’s swing artist Bob Howard. She introduces Come Love Come as her platform to ‘give a voice to the voiceless’ before finishing the main set with a rousing Freedom Highway.
Back on stage for her encore she admits to be about to deviate from her setlist by having to ‘throw one in for my Irish friends’ and lets loose with the lively Gael/Scot instrumental S’iomadh Rud Tha Dhiath Orm before ending what has been an exhilarating nights entertainment and sending the house into raptures with Lonesome Road and Up Above My Head.
A different venue, different setlist and some additional personnel from her show earlier in the year in Whelan’s but the same result. Magnificent!
Review by Declan Culliton Photography by Ronnie Norton