Concert Review/Commentary: Rhiannon Giddens Is Real

Molotov Cocktail: A crude incendiary device typically consisting of a bottle filled with flammable liquid and with a means of ignition.

That is what went flinging into the audience halfway through the Rhiannon Gidden’s show Sunday at the Fillmore. The song was “Backbone”. A song that brought show opener Charly Lowry back onstage to sing about her revolutionary Lumbee/Tuscarora ancestor, Henry Barry Lowry. With every cry of “Gotta have a back bone! Backbone!” another musical Molotov went off. As the pillars of this historic venue burned to black ash cinders and you are left with nothing but the bare bones of what it means to live and survive.

And it was also this moment among many that had me thinking about Beyoncé’s recent album and her foray into exploring country and other roots music and other topics presented in songs like The Beatles, “Blackbird” because, as Beyoncé said, “It is a Beyoncé record.”

I mention this because, that statement sits on the opposite spectrum of what Rhiannon Giddens (who plays banjo on the new Beyonce hit) does. Rhiannon is a musicologist and multi-instrumentalist and so her rumination on records go beyond another, “Rhiannon record”.  The exploring of histories that she does tries to tie the larger culture context together and go deeper than the surface level Beyoncé material that is a one off album. One is not better than the other, they are different things often with different audiences.

But I personally prefer the brand of musical exploration Rhiannon does. It feels more scholarly and studied and nuanced. It’s one thing for Beyoncé to say the banjo came from Africa it is another thing for Rhiannon to know HOW and WHY it came from there and explain to the audience HOW and WHY. And explain that it was an instrument of protest. Again not worse or better just different. Also scholarly pursuits aside I just find Rhiannon’s music more alive and raw and most importantly fun.

And outside Tami Nielsen she may be my second pick for best vocalist going right now any genre. Add the picking and fiddle skills and forget it. You are dealing with multi-threat that could smoke any major pop star going in a duel.

And since she is a musicologist, she does not just get up and thrown down one song after the next. She gives it space and context. And it is these brief interludes where I could tell that the mostly white audience would rather have not had to hear the history lessons. The energy in the room tightened each time some historical placement was made. People want to feel like they embrace all cultures and histories without having to embrace all of a culture’s history. It was similar energy to how the crowd tightened up when Björk made political statements at her show at the Chase Center.

Don’t lecture me I paid for you to play music!

But unlike the Björk when Rhiannon was done talking and her band got to playing the audience got to whooping and screaming and dancing and cheering. So the music was more than just a, “spoonful of sugar” making the medicine go down.

Anyway… back the ash remnants of the Fillmore. “Backbone”, was probably the highlight for me. Followed by, “If You Don’t Know How Sweet It Is”. A fun song with the kind of word play country music is known for. And a song Rhiannon said was inspired by very early Dolly Parton album cuts where Parton is more pointed and sassy than she would be in her later years. It has now had me going and hunting down these early Parton songs I have missed.

But it was the bluegrass jams like, “Cluck Ol’ Hen” that audience seemed to make most attendees loose their minds as the playing got to fever pitches and the venue crumbled around us all.

There isn’t much more to say about the performance. It was stellar and off the charts and exhausting. All the things I predicted even while deciding to go last minute. I definitely say it’s worth it go to hear and feel the history in the traditional songs and feel the breath of the new in her own lyrics and ruminations on these familiar topics. I’ve seen many great shows in my time and this is certainly one that will be WAY up there as a total package experience of music.

I also have to note, I don’t think I ever saw one phone out record the concert so people were definitely engaged in live show and in the moment. It was noticeable the lack of phone use.

But writing this now I find myself thinking about the AI quandary. There were so many elements of Sunday’s show that could not be replicated by AI. Too many factors at play. And if it ever got to the point where AI could replicate it like Star Trek’s Holodeck well I might just quit enjoying live shows.  I also kinda wonder how will people ever have truly new experiences if it is all fabricated 1s and 0s. But it isn’t there yet. Though the big corporations definitely seem to be acting like it can’t get here fast enough so they can control ALL the creative real estate and people won’t know what is real or not anymore.

I haven’t heard much AI music yet. I think I’m too afraid I might like it. And then I have to question why I like what I like at all if my senses can be pleased by a few keywords in a program. But then I think of the many very average songs I danced to at club in my teens and 20s songs like Gina G’s, “Ooh Ahh…” I would loose my mind and yet hear I am my musical tastes having evolved to more complex lyrics themes while still enjoy a good cheesy throwback with lyrics more thin than the plot of a musical.

I would like believe that blood, sweat, and tears will still matter as AI gets better. Meaning that while an AI produced bluegrass jam might be as good as the real thing, all the working the trenches and studying and playing dive bars will give more seniority to actual living musicians. I feel modestly hopeful the people will want actual music and prioritize that. I don’t feel nearly as optimistic about labels and corporation having the same priorities.

So go to a LIVE show with LIVING people, especially people LIVING right in your own communities. And if Rhiannon Gidden’s and her band comes to your neck or woods or backbone of the mountain or leg of the beach go to that too. It is unmistakably live, present, and vital to keeping it real and real good.

What You Witnessed Or What You Missed:

Charly Lowry:

Lumbee Traditional
Brown Skin
Stay
My Man
Crazy (Willie Nelson cover)
Idle No More

Rhiannon Giddens:

Following the North Star
The Love We Almost Had
Wrong Kind of Right
Dimanche après-midi (The Creole Song) ([traditional] cover)
Quoi Faire (Canray Fontenot cover)
Come Love Come (with Charly Lowry)
You Louisiana Man
Briggs’ Forró
If You Don’t Know How Sweet It Is
Another Wasted Life
Niwel Goes to Town
Backbone (with Charly Lowry)
We Could Fly
Cluck Ol’ Hen
Hen in the Foxhouse
Yet to Be
The Lonesome Road (Gene Austin cover)
Up Above My Head (Sister Rosetta Tharpe cover)

Favorites Of The Show:
Backbone
If You Don’t Know How Sweet It Is
Up Above My Head
Brown Skin
Quoi Faire

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