Singer Rhiannon Giddens’ solo debut celebrates the women who came before

SHARE Singer Rhiannon Giddens’ solo debut celebrates the women who came before

BY MARY HOULIHAN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Rhiannon Giddens is best know for her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the stellar collective dedicated to reviving old-time string band traditions. But that gig hasn’t deterred her from thinking about a solo album, something that has been percolating for a while. In fact, Giddens was on the trail of new Chocolate Drops songs when she realized a bunch she collected didn’t fit into that band’s mold. Then T Bone Burnett sealed the deal.

“I was approached by T Bone with the suggestion that I do a solo record and you don’t say ‘Come back in a few years’ to that,” Giddens notes, laughing. “I had these songs and just sort of followed the music, and it happened.”

RHIANNON GIDDENS With: Bhi Bhiman When: 8 p.m. April 23 Where: Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield Tickets: $29-$45 Info: (800) 514-3849; jamusa.com

The songs on “Tomorrow Is My Turn” (a fitting title) are either written by women or popularized by women but sung in Giddens’ own distinctive style, giving a new lift to gospel raves, torchy ballads or bluesy laments. She’d been reading and delving into the lives of women singers who came before her and realizing what big shoes she has to fill.

“I was thinking how amazing they were and how lucky I am in the day and age,” Giddens, 37, says. “These women were in much more difficult circumstances than me but were able to do amazing work. I feel I have a responsibility to highlight their legacy.”

Included along with the title song (popularized by Nina Simone and written by Charles Aznavour) are Odetta’s “Waterboy,” Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words,” Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head,” Elizabeth Cotton’s “Shake Sugaree” and Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” (written by Hank Cochran) as well as several traditional songs — “Black Is the Color” and “O Love Is Teasin’“ — and one original, “Angel City.”

Giddens first performed “Waterboy” at the Burnett-led “Another Day, Another Time” concert at New York City’s Town Hall in the fall of 2013 that celebrated the music of the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis.” She’d never sung the song before and wanted to “represent that tradition of Odetta” in the best possible way. As it turned out, Giddens stole the show. It was one of those career-defining moments that you just can’t anticipate.

For her first solo tour, Giddens has surrounded herself with old friends — fellow members of the Chocolate Drops Hubby Jenkins (banjo), Malcolm Parson (cello), Rowan Corbett (percussion) — plus Jamie Dick (drums) and Jason Sypher (bass). She admits being the central focus on stage is something new: “It is weird but I’ll get used to it.”

Giddens, who grew up in North Carolina in a musically diverse household, remembers going to choral camp one summer, where she found other students her age who wanted to be professional singers; she suddenly realized singing could be a career. Oddly enough, she attended a math and science high school (“I knew I didn’t want to do another algorithm”) with no concentration in music. So when she decided to study opera at Oberlin Music Conservatory in Ohio, she says she knew nothing about music and had only seen opera on television.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she recalls laughing. “It was a crash course. I wanted to know everything.” Eventually, she burned out and discovered the banjo, which became her instrument.

Up until now, Giddens’ talents as an instrumentalist were featured as much or more than her singing. She says she was OK with that in the Chocolate Drops but now is having fun letting her voice “fly a little bit.”

“I feel music can spin an emotional connection between you and your listener,” Giddens says. “It’s such a connector. For me, that’s what it’s all about.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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