Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi
Wednesday, March 4
When I reviewed There Is No Other – the duo album recorded over a handful of days last year by Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi – I talked about the tantalising prospect of this pair of musicologists taking to the road in support of this work. Flash forward a few months and one of the very best albums of last year was brought to life on the Festival stage.
Giddens is a vocalist, fiddle and banjo player, she is a collector of folk songs and the stories that connect them to history and culture; she’s a conduit for the music. Turrisi is a percussionist specialising in tambourines and frame drums. Oh, he’s also a concert pianist exploring the full scope of free jazz and improvisation to classical’s early music too! These classically trained folk archivists gave an extraordinary concert – bringing to life Giddens’ original music (Ten Thousand Voices, At The Purchaser’s Option) and well known standards (Wayfaring Stranger) with stopping-off points in Italy (Pizzica di San Vito) Purcell’s opera (Dido’s Lament), gospel (He Will See You Through), Irish balladry (Molly Brannigan) and the clever melding of minstrel-era folk blues instrumentals with Turrisi’s lifeblood study of Italian percussion (Briggs’ Forro).
As Turissi moved from accordion to various drums and the piano and Giddens swapped her fretless banjo for fiddle, or sometimes stood stoic at the microphone to send her soaring voice through the room, double-bassist Jason Sypher moved lithely through the changes with the skill and deep knowledge of jazz, bringing an extra buoyancy to the tunes, using his bow when needed to supply the strong anchor.
As good as the music was – and it was, without fail, a masterclass, stunning – the informative banter and nice shades of humour from both Giddens and Turissi tied the pretty bow and curled the ribbon on this perfect package.
From Giddens’ explanation of the deep horrors of minstrelsy’s overt racism (but that shouldn’t mean the music is ignored and she found clever ways to transcend the horror, such as Ethel Waters’ rendition of Underneath Our Harlem Moon) to Turissi’s hilarious explanations of his “authentic” frame drums (manufactured in Vermont) and his announcement that everyone had come to see his tambourine solo, the picture painted was of kindred music-nerds, enthralled in the swirl of worlds of song, so deeply committed to their respective crafts; so enamoured with how they’ve found such a blend.
And then – after any piece of profound, informative, funny stage-chatter came another virtuoso display: Francesco’s fast fingers dancing across the skin of the drum, a double-speed blur that made you think a video-editor was manipulating the footage even as you watched it live and in real-time. Rhiannon moving from soul-stirring protest songs through Celtic reels and gospel courage. The interplay between the three musicians was also a joy to watch of course – a secret conversation we were given the privilege of eavesdropping in on.
When they returned to the stage – after a full-house standing ovation – it was to deliver Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s joyous Up Above My Head. But only after Giddens had shared some thoughts about the desperate and troubling state of the world. This was no cliché and these were not platitudes. She spoke of how empathy and the basic tenets of what formed the organised religions (“before they became organised”) – you know Love Thy Neighbour, Be Kind – was the only hopeful way forward.
In that sense, this concert mirrored the thoughts and vibe and connection felt between performers and audience during last week’s Kate Tempest gig.
The scope of playing, the deft skill of daf drums and gut-skin acoustic instruments, the passion and precision, it was all a likely Arts Festival hit, sure. But to see it unfold in the way it did and feel it as it was so clearly knocked out of the park (and for it to feel so real, so very good) well…it’s one of those shows – as with the Tempest, as with Cassandra Wilson’s 2013 Jazz Festival performance – one of the very best gigs you could ever have hoped to see. Something to send you down rabbit holes for days and weeks, to replay in your mind for many years to come.
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