Music review: Rhiannon Giddens sings a haunting slave narrative

(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)

 

There’s nothing academic about Rhiannon Giddens’ stage presence — she’s the real deal.

Standing barefoot on the McCullough Theatre stage Friday between members of the Kronos Quartet, Giddens began with a slave narrative.

You can do all the research in the world, but delivery is the thing, and Giddens embodies her characters on stage.

“Julie” is her dark tale of a series of letters between one former slave and her former owner.

Giddens, who rose to prominence with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, seemed to crossover quite easily with this open-minded Kronos crowd.

Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens

We heard a lullaby for “little baby cuckoo,” another heartbreaker.

Giddens vocals are polished smooth. She hops, rabbit-like, on and off stage.

Her finale, a Gaelic showpiece, built up to a frenzy of breathless, percussive chanting that had the audience leaping to its feet, with hoops and hollers.

Kronos played its own first half set, another exercise in navigating from the familiar to something less so.

While their concert earlier in the week — part of residency at the University of Texas — blended new work from new composers (often from their important Fifty For the Future project), Friday’s set had a distinctly World Music focus.

Tuesday’s show had Laurie Anderson’s soft “Flow,” a new Philip Glass quartet (No. 7), which sounded phoned in — and then more radical work with electronics and oddball instruments with Nicole Lizée “Death to Kosmiche” and the haunting documentary-cum-quartet “Bombs of Beirut” by Mary Kouyoumdjian.

By contrast, Friday’s first half had music from Mali, India, and Northern Canada.

Kronos have been pursuing musical outside the western complex forever, and the result continues to be a genre stretching concert that deviates from the staid three-quarter masterworks concert.

Jazz landed in the mix as well, with a Charles Mingus arrangement.

A certain swing is required here and not having Stéphane Grappelli on stage limits one’s options, so the Mingus felt stiff.

Yet, gems abound. Take the uncanny sound of India in N. Rajam’s “Dadra in Raga Bhairavi” comes from the violin. Each instrument from the Kronos made a startlingly accurate impersonation of (I believe) the taus. Remarkable.

In her interview to preview this concert, Giddens wondered aloud whether she could make a career out of this thing she’s doing. Stage presence isn’t precisely a commodity on its own. But in her business, it is the next best thing.

 


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