I came in with expectations. My wife introduced me to Rhiannon Giddens’s rootsy band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, several years ago, and their first record, called Genuine Negro Jig, had quickly become a staple of family car trips, music that both kids and grown ups could agree on. I had heard she had wowed New York City at an all-star benefit last year, heard she was making records with T-Bone Burnett, covering everyone from Odetta to Patsy Cline to Geeshie Wiley. And frankly, something about the vibe in the crowd at Town Hall last Thursday night made me suspect that this might not be an ordinary night. “There’s Joel Coen,” my wife whispered to me. “There’s Paul Krugman.”
I mention the celebrities only to say that you forgot all about them one number in (“Spanish Mary,” off the New Basement Tapes), because on this night Giddens put herself forward as the only person that mattered in the room, or possibly the world. Her version of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” wasn’t quite as spooky as the original, but it had a soulfulness that I suddenly realized the song had always had, but I never quite heard expressed so clearly. She took on Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” a song of such power you almost can’t imagine anyone else covering it, and harnessed that power, spread it out, amplified, and clarified it, till every word rang in your head at once, yet the essential mystery of the song remained. Giddens’s range is astonishing: Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree” loose and informal and playful, Nina Simone’s “Tomorrow is my Turn” slow and operatic, numerous other numbers entwining folk music and soul and blues into one. She introduced each song as a fan, with humility and boundless respect for the greats; when she sang, all that humility was swept away, and she expressed her respect for the greats in the best way possible, by riding right alongside them.
And just when you were wondering if there was anything Giddens didn’t cover, if there was any other place she could take her music, she sang THIS (video from an earlier concert at the same venue):
I mean, sometimes there are just no words.