Historian. Feminist. Folklorist. Re-appropriator. Carolina Chocolate Drop. These are some of Rhiannon Giddens’ attributes. They certainly do not even begin to tell the story of her musicianship and towering live presence, let alone her ability to lead a brilliant backing band. On Friday at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House, Giddens delivered a live show not soon to be forgotten.
On a stage adorned with street lamps that richly complemented a bold lighting color palette, Giddens took a modestly sized crowd on a journey through our collective musical heritage. The setlist traversed territory including Giddens’ 2015 solo debut Tomorrow is My Turn, her contributions to the New Basement Tapes project — which unearthed Bob Dylan’s long-abandoned lyrics — and other inspirations.
Her voice, which easily moved between English, Creole, Gaelic mouth music and French, is a gorgeous, stirring instrument. Then there was her banjo, which she contextualized as America’s first unique instrument and one invented by African-Americans. Its deep tones were perfect when put to the lost-and-found Dylan lyrics on “Spanish Mary.” Acoustic guitar, violin and tambourine were part of her arsenal as well, with the six-string the perfect accompaniment to her heartfelt solo rendition of “La Vie en Rose,” dedicated to those murdered in Paris, Beirut, Mali and beyond.
Her five-member band — all, she noted, part of the current lineup of the Carolina Chocolate Drops — were stars in their own right. Hubby Jenkins strutted his stuff on guitar, banjo and more while Rowan Corbett brought the bones to life as well as varied string instruments. Malcolm Parson made his cello sing, Jason Sypher showed off some serious bass skills and drummer Jamie Dick expertly held down the kit.
Giddens paid homage to Dolly Parton, Odetta and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and put her own signature spin on their songs. Her one-of-a-kind talent made for a magical night and she must be seen to be believed.