On Tuesday, July 21st, a slight crescent moon rose over Boston saturated in a rosy haze and atmospheric glow. On the stage of the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA., vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens and her band brought a similar transfixing glow to their acoustic music, wrapping their brand of Piedmont blues and Dolly Parton swing in age-old grooves and atmospheric sounds.
The Shalin Liu Center was the perfect cauldron in which to brew this incandescent performance. The Center was built five years ago on the shores of this idyllic fishing village and is the centerpiece for all performance and community outreach for the nonprofit organization, Rockport Music (www.rockportmusic.org) which, for the past 34 years, has brought music education and live music to schools, teen hospices and mental health facilities around the Cape Ann area and beyond. The Shalin Liu Center is a beautiful space, (reminding one of a miniature Ozawa Hall in Tanglewood- one of our favorite halls), with its carved wood balconies, vaulting ceiling and stone and wood irregular surfaces. There is a sweeping view of the Rockport harbor and the ocean beyond through a large window at the back of the stage.
Some performers, (such as Giddens this evening), prefer to close off this large window with a velvet curtain in order to allow for a more focused setting.
The Shalin Liu Center’s intimate confines made for an acoustic challenge to Giddens and her band, particularly in their opening numbers, which included a fierce and dynamic version of Bob Dylan’s “Spanish Mary.” At first, Jason Sypher’s muscular pumping acoustic bass overwhelmed the other instruments in the band, which included Hubby Jenkins’ softly plied guitar and Malcom Parson’s roving cello explorations.
After several minutes, the sound levels were better adjusted in the house to allow each instrument and vocal to be heard clear and crisp in this quicksilver, intimate acoustic space.
Ah, and what gorgeous and inventive sounds they were! From the prickly and nasal sounds of a melodica, played with ardor by Parson on “Black Is The Color” (a number that concluded the first set with a rollicking dervish of swing propelled by Parson’s breathy melodica thrusts), to the rapid-fire guitar and banjo work of Jenkins and Rowan Corbett.
Jenkins lit up a keg of dynamite in his singing of a searing old blues tune condemning the warehousing of Blacks in the U.S. prison system, entitled “Parchman Farm.” He was accompanied by the ricochets of Jamie Dick’s drums and the crack of Corbett’s splendid work on a traditional folk instrument known as the “Bones”- a pair of wooden slats played between Corbett’s fingers.
Those Bones were struck with such crackling momentum that they created a pell-mell snap of sounds that exploded through out the hall (probably sending every sea gull perched on Rockport’s nearby “Bear Skin Neck” pier flying for cover). Corbett and Jenkins plied the Bones on several different instrumental numbers during the concert, always igniting a frolic and a dance with their snap and crackle to propel the enveloping drama.
All of this unfurling beauty (of reverberant instrumental sounds and crackling colors) was wrapped up in the ardent delivery of narratives of love, loss and hope – sung by Giddens in her penetrating vocal style. Giddiness voice is a gift: incredibly expressive with effortless and lithe pitch control. I have previously reviewed Giddens’ recent debut solo record, Tomorrow Is My Turn (Nonesuch Records) and opinioned that it is one of the highlight recordings of this year (see my full review in my piece entitled “A Delta Blues Journey”).
In concert at the Shalin Liu Center, Giddens displayed her amazing gift for inhabiting fully each song she sang. Her expressive vocal range and control effortlessly ensnared the individual kernel of truth and power lying buried in each song’s unfolding drama.
For example, Giddens captured all the soaring gospel radiance of Sister Rossetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head,” singing it with glee to the frolic of bass pumps and guitar leaps. Likewise, Giddens took the lilting quality of “Shake Sugaree” and brought out its sweet sway. She sang her version with great tenderness- her voice soft and plangent. In contrast, on Jean Ritchie’s version of “O Love Is Teasin’, Giddens took this spare and unflinching piece (about the disappointments of love) in a deliberately slow pace, moving shadowy from her deep baritone to rising high crescendos that emphasized the emotional heartache of this song- stinging like a bee in Gidden’s sudden, fierce high yelps. Gidden’s version of Odetta’s “Waterboy” brought down the house: a blast furnace of vocal power, consummate pitch control and a wallop of fierce emotion. The blasts from a nearby bass drum struck by Jenkins, (and directed by Giddens’ with a quick swipe of her forearm), added to the emotional fury of her vocals and the soulfulness of her crafted deep voice.
The power of these great blues, spirituals and work songs from Giddens’ rich Piedmont repertoire can also be heard on an audiophile gem from another talented band that took Piedmont and Delta blues to yet another street corner. The Blue Rider Trio, which consisted of Ben Andrews on vocals and guitar; Jeff Sarli on bass and Mark Wenner on harmonica, recorded for a short time with the superb audiophile label, Mapleshade Records (www.mapleshaderecords.com). Their collaboration produced their 2007 album, Early Morning Blues (Mapleshade Records). This is a recording to cherish, to explore and to be amazed at how these three artists (like Giddens and her band), are able to fully inhabit the world of these traditional blues songs with such skill and common grooves. The recording is superb and captures every swipe of Andrews’ guitar, punchy on “Preachin’ Blues” or light as a feather on “Salty Dog Blues.” Sarli (who passed away in 2006) was a gifted bass player. You can hear him pumping away in soulful foundation (on “Gallows Pole” he hits subterranean bass blows that pound as stately as Giddens’ tremulous “Waterboy”). He and Wenner’s harp range through wide-open territory on many of these heartfelt tunes, slurring and sliding in perfect unison. The history and aura of the people of this region saturates every sparkling note and vocal on this superb recording from the Blue Rider Trio- reminding of that glowing, ancient crescent moon hovering low on the horizon.
For the schedule of upcoming shows at the beautiful Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA., see www.rockportmusic.org.