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Giddens captivates, engages

Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA, May 11, 2017

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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About the only thing wrong that Rhiannon Giddens did was play a too small 900-plus seat venue that sold out months in advance. Aside from that misstep of not allowing in even more of her fans, Giddens was captivating, engaging and certainly not afraid to continue as potent musical force, although she was far more overtly political.

Giddens, of course, earned her spurs as a member of African-American string band Caroline Chocolate Drops, but in recent years, she has pursued a solo career of country, roots and bluegrassy sounds.

"Freedom Highway," released in February, was a change however. Giddens has taken a sharp turn towards soulful, somewhat bluesy sounds with a political bent.

That was perhaps never more evident than in the title track of the CD, which Giddens and band played as the closing song of her regular set. The Staples Family first released the song in the '60s. Giddens seemingly went for a broad appeal with "Freedom Highway" with the words "There is just one thing/I can't understand, my friend/Why some folks think freedom/Is not designed for all men."

"We can do a whole lot more," Giddens implored in her comments.

Giddens gave a history lesson with such songs as "At the Purchaser's Option" about a mother and her young child split apart during the slavery process, "Julie," about a plantation mistress and her supposed friend, who leaves her for freedom; and "Birmingham Sunday" about the murder of four young African-American girls at a Birmingham church bombing in 1963.

This was not simply a political rant, but thoughtful and speaking from history.

Giddens was certainly helped by her vocal finesse remaining ever intact. She's in control, but lively and vibrant. She also was aided on a few cuts by her sister on backing vocals and a nephew, Justin, who rapped on "Better Get It Right the First Time."

While playing banjo, Giddens certainly didn't do it on her own either with her Dirk Powell superb on guitar, fellow Chocolate Drops member Hubby Jenkins on mandolin and banjo and a punchy, engaging three-piece horns section buttressed by the play of the most appropriately named Alphonso Horne on trumpet. All played on the album.

Giddens reached for R&B chestnuts with covers of "Mr. Big Stuff" from Jean Knight from 1971 and "Do-Right Woman, Do Right Man" by Aretha Franklin circa 1967. In the hands of Giddens, they sounded fresh.

As Giddens has shown throughout her career, this is not a night of good times. Giddens remains a potent educational force through music to express the evils of slavery, hate and forgoing freedom with a reference to troubled political times in the U.S. Only next time, play a bigger venue.