Anyone turning up for the opening Transatlantic Sessions show of 2016 and expecting the usual ‘back-porch informality’ of the programme description could have been forgiven for wondering whether they were in the wrong venue tonight. For we were privileged to witness simply one of the most powerful performances I have seen on a supposed folk/roots stage for a very long time.
Rhiannon Giddens visibly astonished the audience and fellow musicians alike by the strength of her vocal delivery and her sheer dynamic, energetic presence. She took ordinary songs, added gospel, soul, country, blues and folk influences, rolled them in her multi-continental lineage, and spat them out with dazzling, audacious, note-perfect ferocity in a performance which will last long in the memory.
More of that later, because even without such a stellar cameo, Transatlantic Sessions never disappoints. The project was originally the brainchild of US dobro-meister Jerry Douglas and Shetland fiddler Aly Bain, who set out back in 1995 to explore and develop the considerable overlap and inter-relationship between North American and Celtic music. It’s a relationship which, as we found to our enormous pleasure tonight, continues to cultivate and bear the ripest of fruit.
Sets of tunes and reels open and punctuate the set, with Mike McGoldrick’s Uilleann pipes, whistle and flute contributions, and John McCusker’s fiddle prowess always to the fore. Danny Thompson’s iconic double bass sound underpins everything, while Phil Cunningham’s accordion, Bain’s fiddle and Douglas’s dobro help create the distinctive house band style, ably supported by Russ Barenberg on guitar, John Doyle on guitar and bouzouki, James Mackintosh on percussion and Donald Shaw on keyboards.
The regulars are augmented this year by American banjo player Joe Newberry, who kicks off the guest spots with some fast plucking and bluegrass-tinged old-time singing on Rocky Island.
Then comes Capercaillie singer Karen Matheson, whose Gaelic material underlines the theme of the Celtic Connections festival of which this show forms part. Gura Mise Tha Gu Dubhach is a lilting Hebridean folk song, while the Robert Burns song Ca’ The Yowes is particularly atmospheric and neck-hair raising in the silence of the sold out concert hall.
Northern Ireland’s Cara Dillon develops the theme, her piercingly pure voice the perfect adornment to McGoldrick’s flute on Shotgun Down The Avalanche, followed by a stunning a capella delivery of The Winding River Roe, aptly enough a song derived from the content of letters sent home from Irish emigrants to the US.
California’s The Milk Carton Kids are next, self-deprecatingly doubting their own musical right to be on the bill, the duo dispel any such doubts immediately with tight guitar and Everly-esque harmonies on Honey, Honey, followed by a haunting Snake Eyes accompanied only by the flutes and whistles of McCusker and McGoldrick.
Enter Rhiannon Giddens. The Carolina Chocolate Drops singer begins with Julie, a powerful slave narrative tale based on a true account of a conversation between owner and owned. McGoldrick’s blistering flute solo is a fitting accompaniment and the song earns the biggest cheer of the night.
So far. Since the hi-tempo half-closing version of Black is the Colour is just astonishing, featuring Mike McGoldrick beatboxing (I’ll just give you a second to take that in!) and fine dobro work from Douglas. But Giddens’s voice is what hits you between the eyes. It’s like being successively and repeatedly punched in the face by Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Etta James and Billie Holiday. She seems genuinely taken aback by the ecstatic response, as do the house band regulars, whose approving, eyebrows-raised glances across the stage at each other are a telling testament to the unexpected impact and sheer energy of her performance. The interval buzz is of nothing else.
Suitably becalmed, further tunes and reels open the second set, with Transatlantic Sessions ever-present Russ Barenberg then stepping forward to deliver his guitar tune The Talking, and Cara Dillon’s Day Is Breaking In My Soul getting the chorus ensemble treatment. Newberry contributes two more fine banjo based songs, West Virginian and The Cherry River Line, before Giddens returns to cement her audacious theft of the show with She’s Got You and finally Waterboy, bringing the house down twice again with the perfect combination of soulful vocal and explosive delivery.
John Doyle has the unenviable task of following that, but does an admirable job on bouzouki with a rousing version of the traditional Irish song I Know My Love before The Milk Carton Kids’ respectful interpretation of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here completes the guest contributions. A final set of John McCusker tunes completes the show with a dancing Giddens in the wings perhaps still high on the acclaim.
Make no mistake, this was an immense show. The expert musical direction ensures a fusion rather than a collision of styles, and the cameos are all of such a high standard that even without Giddens’s contribution this would still have been a memorable night. But it will inevitably now stick in the memory of all present for her stunning performance, and rightly so.
[As a postscript, one festival performer told me a couple of days later that Giddens had sold 200 CD copies of her 2015 album Tomorrow Is My Turn on the strength of her performance that night. I hope the other 199 purchasers are as pleased with their souvenir of the evening as I am.]
Review by: Ian Taylor
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Here’s an earlier performance of Giddens that was filmed for BBC Radio 2 and Celtic Connections with Mark Radcliffe at the CCA in Glasgow: