By Rod Peck
Rhiannon Giddens is one of my very favorite performers. I consider her the greatest American singer of this generation, in addition to being a highly-skilled banjoist and fiddler. Born in 1977 and originally from North Carolina, Giddens first achieved notoriety as a member of traditional string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, which she co-founded in 2005 and won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album of 2010 with “Geniune Negro Jig.”
Her career reached another level in 2013 when she stole the show with her powerful performance of “Waterboy” at the “Another Day, Another Time” concert celebrating the Coen Brother’s film “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Famed producer T-Bone Burnett invited Rhiannon to take part in the “Lost on the River” project, in which current artists completed unfinished songs from Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” period. Burnett also produced her first solo album, 2015’s Grammy-nominated “Tomorrow Is My Turn.” Rhiannon has won the “Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass” and was also awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellows grant. Her 2017 concept album of African-American history, “Freedom Highway,” was nominated for album of the year by the Americana Music Association.
Just this year, Rhiannon released a new album made with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turisi, with whom she is romantically involved. The album they made, titled “There Is No Other” is not only unlike anything Rhiannon has done before. While her previous work had all celebrated the history of American music, this new album had a much more worldly flavor. Promoting racial and even worldly harmony in this era of deep divisions is part of Rhiannon’s art, and this is the concept of the album, which I can wholeheartedly endorse. My issue is that while I enjoy different foods from all over the world, my musical tastes are deeply American. For reasons that must be beyond my understanding, I simply don’t respond to things like classical or what is called the World Beat as I do the music of the USA. As Chuck Berry once put it, “Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchiachovsky the news!”
Now, I said all of that to get to this. My wife Terri and I had plans to drive to Iowa City with some local friends and meet another couple at the Bluebird Diner on E Market Street, then head over to the Englert in time for the 8 o’clock show. As Rhiannon is such a favorite of ours’ we had even splurged for up-front seats. Naturally, we were all very excited when her and Turisi came onstage with an acoustic bassist as their only accompaniment.
At this point, I was challenged in a way I have never been in a lifetime of concert going. We were prepared to hear a lot of music from “There Is No Other” but were also fully expecting a variety of material from her previous work, so it was disappointing that she only sang two songs total from her two solo albums that had made us such fans in the first place. Plus, her and Turisi both spent ample amounts of time giving background on the instruments they played and the songs they performed, which is all good within reason, but it soon began to feel more like we were at a lecture than a concert; there seemed to be more talking than music.
Therefore, I found myself wondering whether the problem was with me or with Rhiannon’s musical choices. Terri mostly enjoyed the concert but was somewhat disappointed that Giddens didn’t do more of the music that inspired us to spend our money on tickets; one of our friends generally shared that view while another was completely accepting that Rhiannon was embracing new musical styles and fully enjoyed the show. I, on the other hand, was the only one who was completely disappointed. In the days since the concert, I have been pondering these issues. I can think of a few other times when musical heroes of mine have made such an about-face in their music; Miles Davis in the late-60’s, when he invented Jazz-Rock fusion, for one. Bob Dylan has confounded expectations many times, most notably when he “went electric” in 1965 and in 1979 when, after a conversion from Judaism to Christianity, for a year he refused to sing any of the songs that made him famous. Looking back from an historical standpoint, I can see why fans at the time might have been upset while also appreciating the boldness and artistry of the new music that was made.
I would have been quite happy if the show had been split between the new material on “There Is No Other” and Rhiannon’s previous work. A friend of mine who had already seen Rhiannon’s current show summed it up with this statement: “They’re trying to show how all music is the same, regardless of its origins or style. It all comes from the hearts and souls of people, and once you get down deep, you see that people ain’t that different from one another.” Was I being a killjoy for wishing she would have sang more of her older songs? Am I now like one of the people who booed Dylan for going electric at the Newport Folk Festival? Or was I right to expect Rhiannon to perform a variety of material from throughout her career that made me a fan in the first place? These are questions to which there are no right or wrong answers, but what I can say for sure is I would be hesitant to lay out the big bucks to see her perform again unless I knew ahead of time that the music was going to be more in line with my tastes.
Next week: The Talbott Brothers at The Mill in Iowa City, Thursday Nov. 7.
You can’t call me George, but I am a very Curious Guy. That’s why I’m an artist, a writer, an entrepreneur … I’m always curious about the next thing or creative endeavor. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created …” To create is active. If it’s good enough for Him it’s good enough for me.”