Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell – Masters in Collaboration at Irish Arts Center

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How it’s New York: At the Irish Arts Center in New York
How it’s Irish:  Presented by the Irish Arts Center and featuring Rhiannon Giddens who now lives in Ireland

Photo courtesy of Anthony Mulcahy – Mulography

Now in its 12th season at the Irish Arts Center, Saturday night brought a magical presentation from singer, historical banjo and fiddle master Rhiannon Giddens and multi-instrumentalist and singer Dirk Powell.  This series gives a peek inside the creative process of artists collaborating to bring new work to their audience.  A truly intimate and organic process, this evening showed the many insights, talents and inspirations of both performer.

I was very excited for this event, having only heard Rhiannon Giddens amazing voice and playing skills on television and online.  It was an awesome experience to be in the room and watch the creative mastery and emotion that she brings to her work.

Long a student and champion of the early African-American musical genres from the South, Giddens brings a wealth of knowledge and a fire in her belly that comes through in her singing.  A number of the songs they performed over the evening came from a current project on the Massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina of 1898.  A very sad event wherein the KKK was allowed to overthrow a fusionist  African-American party in an election, giving them the ability to replace all the local politicians with their hand-picked candidates.

The song selections included many from their recent release together, Freedom Highway and some written as recently as the day of the show.

Dirk Powell played a lovely Creole waltz Bon Soir Moreau that he learned from the playing of Cajun accordion player Amédé Ardoin.

With Powell switching to piano, they played a new song called Lament for Francisco’s a restaurant they searched for on a recent trip to New York, only to find it had closed just a few weeks before they arrived.  This was during the time that they were in town while Rhiannon was auditioning to replace Audra McDonald in “Shuffle Along” on Broadway.  A job, which she got, but the show closed before she had a chance to go on in the part.  Something that she referred to a number of times throughout the show, but which allowed her to fly out to LA when she received a call to screen test for the TV show Nashville, where she did end up playing the part of Hanna Lee “Hallie” Jordan for 2 seasons, singing some of the songs she has been writing with Powell.

The newest song they performed was a haunting tale of an African-American woman who has to act as her husband’s housekeeper so that they won’t get found out.  The imagery of the song is of the woman striving to make everything white, the floors, the dishes, the laundry, echoing her own wish for an easier life, had she been white.

The final song of the first half was an almost operatic tale, written in the style of the late 1800s, about the wife of an African-American newspaper man, bemoaning the loss of her husband and the business in a fire set to stop the paper which was informing the African-American community.

Part 2 of the evening they dubbed as “Songs in the key of…”  It included homages to Sarah Vaughan, Alberta Hunter, Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton, with Giddens slipping into each of their singing styles like a comfortable pair of shoes.  The most hilarious of this set was with the song in the key of Dolly Parton which referred to a woman telling her man, “if you don’t know how good you have it, you better get out my kitchen!”

Throughout the evening Giddens moved seamlessly from her original Negro banjo, to the modern banjo, fiddle and Powell from guitar to banjo, accordion and piano.  Their vocal harmonies blended deftly with each other and their repartee shows the comfort of people who have been collaborating for a long time

Photo courtesy of Anthony Mulcahy -Mulography

They finished off the evening with We Could Fly and the iconic Julie, from the Freedom Highway record.  Julie, the tale of a slave woman and her master watching the soldiers coming to get them during a civil war battle was one of the most heart-wrenching of the night.  Giddens truly let down all her defenses and channeled the spirit of the women in these making them vividly appear in front of us.

The entire night was a wonderful conversation between the two musicians, sharing the inspiration behind their songs and the process they have gone through in creating them.  Thanks to the IAC for bringing them to us, and please bring them back again!

Checkout all the wonderful events in the current Irish Arts Center Season here: http://irishartscenter.org/whats-on


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