It’s a rainy night in Dublin as the long queue on the street tries to shelter from a steady drizzle. By the time the doors are opened the cold and damp has settled into many and the respite of the warm interior turns into a scramble for seats and an optimum view.
The Sugar Club has been a music venue since 1999 and was previously the Irish Film Theatre. With tiered seating and a stage that boasts plush red curtains as a backdrop, it is an intimate space and just perfect for tonight’s performance, given by a duo whose musical paths crossed 4 years ago, but who have only found time to collaborate properly in the recent past.
There is an album due in May, There Is No Other, which has been partly inspired as a reaction to the present absence of fellowship in the Western ‘developed’ World and the urge to separate out people and nations as being ‘other’. By indulging this habit, the excuse to subjugate and wage war on these people is given free licence.
The concert is presented by the Music Network as part of the 2019 programme and the pairing of these two talents is something of a master stroke. The music spans many different genres and time periods, with the richness of the interplay between both artists a joy to witness. Their understanding of the song dynamic is just beautifully observed as they interpret and colour the arrangements and the song melodies. It’s an eclectic and giddy mix of music that draws from many cultures; African and Islamic rhythms sit with Mediterranean and Celtic tunes, played on an array of banjos and drum/percussion instruments.
Rhiannon Giddens is very well established and respected in international circles and her superb musicianship on banjo and fiddle is only matched by her peerless vocal delivery across a range of songs that touched on Blues, Folk, Gospel and deep influences from our collective history.
Indeed, there is a sense of Irish traditional rhythms and airs interwoven through the songs and one can just imagine the impact that mass emigration brought to America, going back the centuries, as all the indigenous music of different nations grew into what we hear today and what carries on the old ways, while honouring those who have gone before.
Rhiannon sings historical music and the dark shroud of the slave trade is always going to resonate strongly and have a big influence on her muse. Her writing speaks to the ancestors who endured so much pain and torture in order to establish better opportunity for the generations that followed. She honours their struggle with impassioned vocals on songs like 10,000 and At The Purchaser's Option. Her recent project, ‘Songs of Our Native Daughters’ is a collaboration that brings together fellow roots musicians Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla who tell forgotten stories of the African diaspora in North America.
Francesco Turrisi plays an impressive range of instruments, from the imperious Una Corda piano to piano accordion, the Oud and across a range of percussive tambourines, bodhran-like talking drums and more. He is innovative, intuitive and his improvisational skills produce delicate soundscapes which colour the songs with just the right palette.
Francesco plays two instrumental piano pieces and his beautiful playing is reminiscent of the top contemporary artists who create ambient soundscapes. He also gives brief history lessons on the different percussive styles that are used on his seven frame drum instruments that range from all corners of the globe. There is also mention of Contra Dance music, the history of minstrelsy and black banjo music, Trance Dance rituals from Italy that assist in healing and old tunes from 1855 that are reinterpreted into compelling performance.
The traditional song, Wayfaring Stranger, is sung with such ache and longing and the pure resonance of the vocal performance is quite breath taking. Rhiannon has such a clear tone and powerful delivery and never more so than on Factory Girl, a traditional Irish song she adapted to reflect the horror of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh where over 1,000 people died with thousands more injured.
Little Margaret, Spiritual, He Will See You Through and There Is No Other are all performed with great delivery and dexterity on a range of instruments, while Pretty Saro is sung acapella as part of an encore that also includes Molly Brannigan; highlighting some superb scat singing from Rhiannon as she weaves her way through the Irish refrain of ‘Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra’ sung at increasing speed, then spun into a Gospel tinged peak, before returning to the ‘Too-ra-loo-ra-li’ ending that has the audience cheering wildly.
Rhiannon speaks of everything repeating itself and how it all comes round again; nothing is really new. The emigration of the Irish in past times is like a mirror to the present Global shift of people from troubled lands that are suffering terrible hardship. We could all use a little grace and tenderness in these dark times and tonight we are given a wealth of musical treasures to cherish. The creative art of music is a healing balm when it is performed with this much honesty, passion and skill.
Review by Paul McGee Photography by Ronnie Norton