Rhiannon Giddens in Boothbay Harbor
Constructed as a meeting hall in 1894, the Opera House at Boothbay Harbor, with a seating capacity of about 400, would seem to be the ideal venue for a classically trained singer turned roots-music virtuoso who thrives in an intimate setting.
Rhiannon Giddens is that singer.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that she is also my favorite singer. That it didn’t take long for her to become my favorite singer I hope says more about her extraordinary gift than it does about my fickle-mindedness. As a music lover, I have been known to flit from obsession to obsession, gorging on the complete discography of this or that artist, posting and reposting YouTube videos of live performances for my Facebook friends to ignore, until the fire burns out and I move on to the next thing.
That has yet to happen in this case.
As of this writing, my out-sized enthusiasm for Rhiannon Giddens has been going strong for about eight or nine months, and, despite a concurrent Lowell George/Little Feat kick that still hasn’t quite run out of gas, shows no signs of abating. Giddens continues to be the artist whose music I can listen to when nothing else on my MP3 shuffle is working for me. I think I know why. She’s a difficult musician to burn out on, probably because her repertoire plumbs so many genres of roots music—folk, bluegrass, country, R&B, gospel, jazz, celtic, even the occasional electoacoustic mash-up (specifically her vocal contribution to Sxip Shirey’s “Woman of Constant Sorrow”). But that voice…That voice, like that of Odetta and Patsy Cline before her, transcends everything.
It was on the first day of summer, early in the tourist season, that Giddens and her band brought their rock show to Boothbay Harbor, Maine. My wife and I had hit town the previous day, and for me, showtime could not come soon enough. We had passed the singer on the street that very afternoon, and I was still starstruck and giddy from the experience, so much so that I probably didn’t pay opening act Amythyst Kiah the attention she deserved—she was quite good, from what I remember of her set. But I was there to see the Queen, and I doubt the ghost of Ola Belle Reed herself could have distracted me when a barefoot Giddens took the stage and delivered a turbo-charged cover of Reed’s own “Going To Write Me a Letter.”
It only got better from there.
Everyone who has seen Giddens live knows what a force of nature she is. She’s a phenomenal vocalist, sure, but she also plays the banjo and fiddle with an assuredness that serve to remind us that she began her career as a member of the acclaimed string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. On this night, backed by a four-piece combo that included multi-instrumentalist and fellow Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins, bassist Jason Sypher, and keyboardist/guitarist Ric Robertson, Giddens delivered a powerful set showcasing several compositions from her “newish” album, 2017’s Freedom Highway, augmented by a medley of fiddle tunes and key songs form her solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn. As a preface to “Waterboy,” a work song famously sung by Odetta, Rhianna spoke movingly of meeting the aging singer near the end of her life, when her body was failing but her spirit remained strong. And later, after taking rock star Bono to task for his absurd complaint that rock and roll had become too “girly,” Giddens underscored her scorn for the U2 frontman with forceful renditions of “That Lonesome Road” and “Up Above My Head,” two gospel numbers associated with the godmother of rock and roll herself, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
The sold-out show, whose audience seemed to be predominately made up of erstwhile-hippy baby boomers—no offense, but what’s up with that, Maine?—was mostly receptive and well behaved, with the possible exception of one reveler who seemed determined to make a spectacle of herself.
“What about the MacArthur Grant?” yelled the seemingly tipsy carouser from the balcony—a reference to the “Genius Grant” Giddens recently received from the MacArthur Foundation.
“What about it?” the singer responded laconically. “It’s very exciting.”
Current events seemed to inform much of the set list. Regarding the Roebuck “Pops” Staples song “Freedom Highway,” Giddens expressed ambivalence about still having to play songs from the Sixties in 2018. And, in her encore, she voiced her dismay that so many Americans seem to have a very short memory when it comes to the subject of immigration, then went on to deliver an off-mike, a capella reading of the immigrant song “Pretty Saro.”
It was an emotional moment.
By the time the show had concluded, I knew it would be hard to top the experience of seeing this singular musician in all her live glory, and that my fascination with her work, far from being sated, would be sticking around to irritate my wife and social media friends for some time to come.
In hindsight, maybe I’ve been a bit hard on the wound-up fan in the peanut gallery.