Live review

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi at Royal Festival Hall (2019 EFG LJF)

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi
(Royal Festival Hall, 22 November 2019. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Jon Turney)

The concert, like the duo’s recording There is No Other, opened with Ten Thousand Voices, a song inspired by the lives of female slaves who were once sold for their musical prowess, each with their individual songbook. Like many of Rhiannon Giddens’ songs it’s at once a stunning vocal performance and a small history lesson, and only gains power heard live. When the opener already makes the hairs on the neck stand up, you know there is something special about to unfold.

Special is hardly adequate, but I’ll eschew a stack of superlatives. Let’s try and itemise. Giddens is extravagantly talented. She has one of the great voices of the age: with power, presence, unmatched flexibility and nuanced expression of every syllable. She plays brilliant fiddle and five-string banjo. She writes new songs that immediately lodge permanently in the mind. (I had assumed the set closer, the heartfelt search for consolation in troubled times He Will See You Through was ancient. Nope, she and Dirk Powell just wrote it). And on stage she works in the history, in between the songs, with a serious tone but a light touch. Never has a little education been so well delivered.

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi (Publicity photo)

The history is partly musicological and her equally adept partner is a foil for her there as well. Francesco Turrisi weaves in stories about his suite of hand drums, as well as contributing richly on accordion and piano. For this tour, the duo are joined by Jason Sypher on bass, which suits the large venue. Filling out the bottom range, especially with bowed bass, enriches music that is already strongly flavoured. And, for London, Alphonso Horne joins them on swaggeringly enjoyable trumpet on a couple of numbers to broaden the sound even more.

Everyone on stage tonight is world class, including Nigerian-Glaswegian singer Bumi Thomas who carries off the tricky assignment of a brief opening set with aplomb. But it is Giddens who commands the evening. She can bring off any style, without apparent effort. One number will be old school folk-song as lament. Then she and Turrisi turn operatic. A perfect rendition of Molly Brannigan, a nod to the duo’s domicile in Ireland, features supersonic syllabic play between verses that turns into scat singing before resuming its more familiar form. A hip-swinging rendition of Underneath the Harlem Moon, a deeply racist song once redeemed with some additional lyrics, brings its redeemer, Ethel Waters, before us. That’s one of the few pieces in this long set that doesn’t appear on There is No Other. We get a couple more when Giddens channels Sister Rosetta Tharpe for a joyful gospel encore that could take the evening in a different direction but is a marvellous way to finish.

I heard Giddens and Turrisi earlier in the year in a smaller venue in Belfast, which was deeply memorable. And the night before this grander affair she appeared for a much smaller audience at an LJF special at Wormwood Scrubs, an evidently remarkable event which Richard Williams was lucky enough to hear. But she’s surely destined to spend most of her her career on larger stages from now on. And, a little of the RFH’s characteristic over-amplification of acoustic instruments aside, full houses like this give the largest number of listeners some of the best music they are ever likely to share.

Giddens and Turrisi’s tour continues in the UK until December 1.

Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol. jonturney.co.uk.  Twitter: @jonWturney

LINKS: Rhiannon Giddens’ website

An earlier encounter with Giddens

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