Rhiannon Giddens undoubtedly was a fine student at the prestigious North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and at the elite Oberlin Conservatory. Her intellect and sense of scholarship were on display in abundance on Wednesday night at St. Catherine University in part of the long-standing Women of Substance Series.
One of the more gifted singers to emerge as a solo star in the last few years, Giddens gave a purposeful, illuminating and often outstanding performance.
Since going solo in 2015 from her Grammy-winning old-timey group Carolina Chocolate Drops, the 40-year-old has made two stand-out concept albums. Her debut, “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” saluted essential female music makers including Nina Simone, Dolly Parton and Odetta. This year’s “Freedom Highway” is a collection of mostly originals that trace historical situations that illustrate that black lives matter.
In front of about 1,000 people at the O’Shaughnessy at St. Kate’s, Giddens and her simpatico band mixed songs from both collections. That meant that she had to do a fair amount of set up for each number.
She would gush over say Aretha Franklin before essaying “Do Right Woman” or give a historical tale about four young black girls dying in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, before singing Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday.”
There were even a couple of Louisiana fiddle numbers, featuring multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, that were included for sheer entertainment value.
Giddens, who played banjo and fiddle, would describe all the music that she played in the two 45-minute sets as “American music.” It was roots music of various styles, folk, spiritual, blues, R&B, gospel, jazz, Cajun, Creole and country; some tunes blended genres.
Even though this concert lacked the wow moments of discovery of her 2015 Pantages show, highlights came often on Wednesday: the mostly a cappella “Water Boy” as an earthy spiritual; “We Could Fly,” a folk ditty filled with joyous spirit; the gospel medley in overdrive of “Go Where I Send Thee” and “Elijah Rock”; a sly jazzy reworking of Ethel Waters’ “Underneath Our Harlem Moon”; the dark, mysterious fiddle tune “Come Love Come”; a rousing treatment of the Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway” featuring hot guitar from Hubby Jenkins; and the finale of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel rockers “That Lonesome Road” and “Up Above My Head.”
The high point, though, was the first encore of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You.” Earlier before “Do Right Woman,” Giddens had said “you can’t get much better than Aretha Franklin and we’re not going to even try.” She prefaced the encore by saying “there’s no out-Patsying Patsy Cline.”
Well, she sure threw herself into “She’s Got You.” She was wailing like Aretha doing Patsy. Professor Giddens doesn’t get much better than that – with or without a lecture.