Live review

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi at the 2023 Norfolk and Norwich Festival

Rhianon Giddens. Publicity photo by Ebru Yildiz

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi

(Norfolk and Norwich Festival, 12 May 2023. Review by Bruce Lindsay)

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Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi had the honour of opening this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival with a performance in the venerable St Andrew’s Hall. The hall, the largest of this year’s festival venues, started life as the nave of the friary and was completed in 1449. It’s been a concert venue for over 250 years, an impressive setting though one that holds its challenges for performers and sound engineers alike, so it’s worth congratulating Giddens, Turrisi and their sound engineer for the superb sound quality of this event, a two-hour concert that educated, informed, and, most emphatically, entertained, the sellout audience.

A fan once told Rhiannon Giddens that ‘difference is your genre.’ Giddens told us this tale four numbers into the set, when it had already become obvious just how true that statement is. Giddens and Francesco Turrisi had already performed ‘Calling Me Home,’ a song about ‘a good death’ as Giddens put it; an original Giddens instrumental; ‘Si Dolce è’l Tormento,’ which Giddens sang in Italian; and ‘Bye Bye Baby Blues,’ played on a variety of instruments including cello banjo, five-string banjo, viola, accordion and percussion. Then they played a selection of music from Black Lucy and the Bard,a ballet the pair composed based on William Shakespeare’s possible relationship with a black brothel owner (perhaps the ‘Dark Lady’ of the sonnets). They followed this with a Giddens composition based on an advertisement offering a young slave woman for sale, her baby available to buy ‘At the Purchaser’s Option,’ then closed the set with a couple of fiddle tunes, one Irish one Shetland, an upbeat finish to what had been at times a very downbeat selection.

Set two started in equally downbeat territory, with Giddens singing ‘Oh Death’ with just Turrisi’s hand drum as accompaniment. In contrast to the set one opener, ‘Oh Death’ is a plea to the Grim Reaper to hold off from taking the singer for at least another year. The beautiful ‘Dos Gardenias’ followed, a song which Giddens first heard performed by the Buena Vista Social Club, then came ‘Underneath Our Harlem Moon,’ from the singing of Ethel Waters. A couple of fiddle tunes from Giddens’ home state of North Carolina kept up the good vibes, as did an old song from the repertoire of Joe Thompson, one of the last of the North Carolina string band musicians.

Giddens has recently been singing Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’ accompanied by its writer, and incorporating a small alteration Simon made to the lyrics. She sang the same version in Norwich, ‘we didn’t come here on the Mayflower …’ This was a powerful and beautiful end to the evening, a memorable close to what had been a truly gorgeous concert. However, the audience demanded an encore, and so the duo returned to perform another Giddens original, a raucous, slightly rude, blues in the style of Alberta Hunter. It was fun, Giddens was clearly enjoying herself, as was the audience. But for me, the night, and possibly the entire festival, had reached its peak just a few minutes earlier.

Norwich and Norfolk Festival runs until 28 May – WEBSITE

Categories: Live review, Reviews

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