Jay Meehan: Giving voice
“Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!”
~ Allen Ginsberg
Taking in the Rhiannon Giddens New Years Eve show at the Eccles Center Sunday night-past definitely grabs a podium spot in the rejuvenation of spirit competition. Blessed event! Really no other way to characterize it. It left us, ever-trusting that it dropped somewhere close-by, groping for our collective jaw.
I mean just the fact that there exists among us a talent of such exalted nature is enough to imply the possibility of, dare I say, “hope.” Why else would such a life-force have evolved? It must somehow relate to these times. Not that she was explicit or anything in defining them in the vocal tradition.
Implication and wryness were much more on display than, say, calling out hubris from the mount. Although one could sense that sipping truth serum and attempting subtle philosophical compositions in the moment called upon nuanced editing processes that she could just as easily have forgone while playing her notions as they laid.
But, like I mentioned, hope, as a noun in short supply, radiated. That being said, I must admit to having most always subscribed to the Ed Abbey rule-of-thumb – or is it a more centralized digit – that a pessimist is an optimist in full possession of the facts. I mostly occupy a somewhat more cynical vantage point.
And that may be why I noticed a caution, an advisory of sorts, emanating from some central portion of Gidden’s musical epistle to us latter-day-Corinthians that, just because we’ve spent a year awash in darkness, light is not necessarily banging on the gate. There is no cosmic law concerning the conservation of negative energy.
What her show explicitly did put forth to the willing aural recipient, however, was the sheer joy of ensemble performance virtuosity in both instrumental and vocal arranging. These cats can cook, and flat-out let it fly. And it is in that rapture, that ecstasy, where both light and healing enters the fray.
There were many moments when you wanted to stand up and testify. They had me muttering in tongues more than once. Hell, early in the show when Rhiannon dished on her brilliantly refocused Patsy Cline cover “She’s Got You,” the wondrous acoustics of the Eccles Center seemingly opened the roof before taking us into the stratosphere.
And, it is in that realm where she even has her way with Nashville, that, to a cultural naïveté such as I, her expansive reach becomes most manifest. Of course the same could be said of her renditions of Pop Staples’ take-it-to-the-streets” anthem “Freedom Highway,” Odetta’s classic “Waterboy,” or Ethel Waters’ “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”
Somehow Ms. Giddens retains proper homage to those whose recordings she now pays tribute while at the same time making them her own. Her mission of “giving voice to the silenced” seems to carry with it not only the multi-ethnic persuasions she herself embodies but to the entire genetic bandwidth of the planet.
When called upon by the context of the musical piece in question, there are also levels of exuberance and brilliance involved in her performance art that take the overall experience levels to heretofore unimagined heights. If that sounds a bit hyperbolic, I would prescribe one of her live shows as a method of alleviating doubt.
Or, I suppose, one could just go through the litany of acknowledgments that have been piling up on the mantelpiece as of late, the most recent of which is the MacArthur Fellowship or, as it has come to be known, the “Genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
There are Grammy Awards and nominations for “Musical Events of the Year” to go along with featured roles in television and film also in Rhiannon’s performance quiver, a method of accumulation that may well need to be enlarged. There appears to be little in the oeuvre of cultural science with which to accurately plot her meteoric arc.
One of the “coolest” and most resonating nods to come her way this year, to me anyway, was when she was asked to deliver the keynote address at the 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association conference this past September.
Rhiannon Giddens has certainly and most deservedly so become one of the hottest tickets on the American music scene today. She has given voice to the silenced and seemingly, at the moment anyway, is what she has set out to do.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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