Singer/banjoist Rhiannon Giddens, accompanied by a re-formed version of her old band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, sounded like someone from a different century at Meany Hall Wednesday, May 20.
Rhiannon Giddens just wasn’t made for these times. The songs she and her band played Wednesday (May 20) at Meany Hall hearkened back to genres of American music popular 150 years ago. When she did include a modern song, it was likely one several decades old.
She began with “Spanish Mary,” one of Giddens’ contributions to the 2014 album “The New Basement Tapes.”
“I cowrote that with Bob Dylan back in the ’60s,” she joked.
The 38-year-old singer wasn’t even born then, but the composition credit was nearly accurate, since she wrote the melody to a lost Dylan lyric sheet.
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She performed it on banjo, but for most of the concert she simply sang. Her vocals showed a remarkable range that mined rich traditions of jazz, gospel, torch songs and the blues. Her between-song explanations included an excellent lesson in ethnomusicology.
The banjo, Giddens explained, is actually of African-American origin and in its first 100 years in America was played exclusively by blacks.
Giddens is the rare singer who inhabits every song she sings, whether she crafted the tune or not. Her take on Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” was so assured it was almost impossible to imagine that someone other than Giddens had written it.
A five-piece band — a re-formed version of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which Giddens co-founded — subtly backed her.
She has a commanding physical presence, and stood center stage with her arms at her sides for most of the night, performing barefoot, which added intimacy. Her body language added to the old-fashioned feel of the night, as if it were a recital.
A version of Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree” almost approached rock ’n’ roll, but her encore on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “The Lonesome Road” was as purely gospel as the 1930s original.
Odetta’s “Water Boy” was the song that broke Giddens to a wider audience a couple of years back, and she did it magnificently.
Giddens ended the main set as she began it, with another track from her Dylan lyric project. “Duncan & Jimmy” again included lines Dylan crafted years and years ago, but Giddens effectively shrouded it in rich blues singing that made it sound like a song from a different century.