With the show sold out not long after it was announced it is not surprising that the venue is packed to the rafters for the welcomed return of Ireland’s adopted daughter Rhiannon Giddens, whose last appearance in Dublin was at the same venue in July 2015. Giddens and her band have marginally more elbow room on a stage that also accommodates a mandolin, two banjos, three acoustic guitars, two electric guitars, two fiddles, drum kit, upright bass, keyboards, a Cajun accordion and bones. Not that the lack of space concerns Giddens in the least who adds "it’s great to play at Whelan’s again so close to you all and my band. The stages at some of the venues we play in these days are that large that I can hardly see my band and they become more like an ensemble!" It’s a pointer towards the splendid form that Giddens and her band are in on the last night of their tour of Europe before heading to Australia the following day.
The Grammy Award winning artist has for many years been adored for her exceptional vocal range and technical musical ability but since her last appearance in Dublin she has also revealed an excellence as a song writer on her recent release Freedom Highway, possibly the most potent political protest album for many years.
Once every so often gig attendees are fortunate to witness an artist or band when they are particularly on fire, whether it be in support of a career best album, the last night of a tour or a special occasion. Tonight, is without doubt one of those magical event, with a performance that has the audience totally engaged from the opener Spanish Mary to the couple of Scottish Gaelic reels that conclude the evening some ninety minutes later. The audience’s mood rises and dips from pin drop silence, to hand clapping and singing along, as Giddens delivers a set combining material from her recently release Freedom Highway as well as revisiting her extensive back catalogue.
Her band are made up of three members who appeared on her last visit to Dublin, Carolina Chocolate Drop colleague Hubby Jenkins on guitar, mandolin, banjo and bones, Jason Sypher on bass and James Dick on drums. Giddens on her earlier albums had engaged producers such as Joe Henry, Buddy Millar and T. Bone Burnett but decided to co-produce Freedom Highway and sought out the services of multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell. Powell’s presence on stage this evening playing keyboards, electric guitar, fiddle, accordion and adding backing vocals, is the catalyst that brings the performance to a higher level. Giddens is on record insisting that the band she wanted touring the album would also be the musicians who recorded it and their timing, chemistry and comradery certainly reinforce this.
Following on from Spanish Mary Giddens performs four tracks in succession from Freedom Highway, the upbeat The Love We Almost Had, the instrumental Following The North Star, the gorgeous ballad We Could Fly performed by Giddens and Powell as a duo and the particularly moving At The Purchaser’s Option. Giddens explains the history behind the song which was motivated by a newspaper cutting she came across while researching African American history, advertising a twenty-two-year-old slave girl for sale with her nine-month-old daughter available also "at the Purchasers Option". Her vocal delivery as you would expect is exquisite, soaring and dipping throughout the set and the passion, most notable on the material from the current album, is there for all to witness, most particularly on Birmingham Sunday ("a song we should not still be singing") and Julie, the first song she wrote for the album. Giddens explains that the banjo she is playing on Julie is in fact an 1858 replica that she acquired which sounds exactly as it would have back then.
The delivery is painfully moving on many songs also, particularly her current material, but there is also no end of humour. Giddens arriving on stage stylishly attired but not realising that a large price tag is dangling from her skirt which raises a giggle as much by herself as her audience. Her good-natured anecdote is also well received when telling the audience that her two children attend Gael Scoil in Limerick. "Thanks for not laughing when I mentioned Limerick, everyone else does."
The set list also includes the crowd pleaser Waterboy, the Patsy Cline favourite She’s Got You ("my all-time favourite weepin’ in the beer song"), Powell taking centre stage playing some foot tapping Cajon dance waltzes on his accordion and Hubby Jenkins singing and ripping some electric blues on the African-American bible song Children Go.
The first encore is a rousing version of The Staple Sisters 60’s rally song Freedom Highway with UK artist and support artist Jordan Mackampa invited on stage to perform backing vocals. The final encore is a medley of Lonesome Road and Up Above My Head followed by a couple of Scottish reels with Giddens declaring ("I can’t sing another note, I’ve sung my brains out") before leaving the stage to rapturous applause.
For those who were fortunate to attend the show and witness Giddens and her superb band in such fine form it’s an occasion that will remain in the memory bank for quite a while. For those who did not the good news is she is back in Ireland in November.
Review and photography by Declan Culliton