Last month T-Bone Burnett called up Rhiannon Giddens and asked her to be part of a special concert at The Town Hall in NYC to be filmed by Joel and Ethan Coen that will be aired on Showtime in December. This concert special is in support of their incredible film “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I had the privilege to go a preview of this film earlier in the year at the GRAMMYs. It is a remarkable film on the often underlooked era of the folk music movement before Bob Dylan came around. Justin Timberlake, who plays Jim Berkey in the film, looks like Paul Clayton, one of my favorite performers of this era. Paul was the man that first recorded Etta Baker, so I have always been intrigued by this man. I could talk on and on about this film.
Rhiannon had just finished months of touring and was back in Ireland with her husband where her daughter has just started school. She flew back to NYC specifically for the show. The rehearsals were amazing, with such incredible talent hanging around. Sitting around with Joan Baez, Elvis Costello, the Punch Brothers, Gillian Welsh and so many others.
When I arrived the next afternoon at the Town Hall for dress rehearsals, I had just missed Rhiannon’s spot. I suspected something big had just happened as producer T-Bone Burnett walked up to me and gave me a giant bear hug.
The night of the performance I arrived in the basement under the stage, where all the musicians were pleasantly playing N.C. fiddle tunes lead by Rhiannon, with the Avett Brothers, Keb Mo, Joan Baez, and more settling in to a relaxed groove. Seeing all was set I said my goodbye to Rhiannon and took my seat for the show. It was absolutely stunning, the Avett Brothers ended the first set and just made the audience’s blood boil.
Jack White opened the second set with a few songs, and then there was Rhiannon, the hottest slot of the night. Unflinching and poised with elegant beauty Rhiannon took the stage and did a tribute to a song by Odetta – but it was not a tribute, Rhiannon channeled Odetta; she summoned her presence from the heavens, her spirit filled the hall, it was truly amazing. Then Rhiannon effortlessly switched gears and, backed by the Punch Brothers, sang two Gaelic tunes. As soon as the songs ended everyone in the room was on their feet; Rhiannon had just received the only standing ovation of the evening.
Later at the after party Rhiannon rushed to the hotel, got her fiddle and began a jam with Dirk Powell and Joan Baez, culminating in Joan leading the crowd in our nation’s never-ending mourning for Levon Helm with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” As I strolled through the crowd people came up and hugged me; the Coen Brothers’ business manager, T-Bone, Los Angeles Times reporters, even Chris Rock came over to shake my hand and have me introduce him quickly to Rhiannon. It was strange but beautiful; when Rhiannon put her fiddle down, of course she got the deserving hugs and compliments. It was a very special evening.
The next morning articles throughout the nation were written about the night and all ended up with the same conclusion: that Rhiannon was the highlight of the evening. I sent Taj Mahal the articles and he called me, so excited; he was strutting around his hotel room like a proud grandfather. “People forget that Harry Belafonte had his moment and broke through, to see Rhiannon following, is a truly special moment for the people and music she represents.”
To see her photo in the NY Times Arts Section I almost jumped through the roof. Here is how they concluded their article:
“The concert’s real head turner was Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She turned to the folk revival repertory of Odetta for the enigmatic ‘Water Boy,’ singing it with the fervor of a spiritual, the yips of a field holler and the sultry insinuation of the blues. And she followed it with a pair of songs in Gaelic, making them peal and dance. These weren’t her local folklore; they were learned, and the performances were splendidly polished. In true folk revival spirit, the songs flourished and lived on.” (Read it here.)
Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision, via Evan Agostini/Invision/AP