Rhiannon Giddens + Kaia Kater @ Town Hall, 19th November 2017

Whilst the bustling Frankfurt Christmas Market is in full swing outside, nestled in the sanctity of Birmingham’s prestigious Town Hall are an expectant bunch, ready to revel in some truly world class musicianship and storytelling. Giddens has garnered a multitude of awards and critical recognition for her staunch endeavours in the tradition of folk and bluegrass music. With parts of the world still choosing to rehash the mistakes of the past, Giddens’ original compositions and revival of traditional songs, serve as timely reminders as to the need for union, not division.

Kaia Kater makes a welcome return to Birmingham, having last performed in the city back in September as part of The Moseley Folk Festival. This might go someway as to explaining the Canadian singer’s grasp of the “proper” pronunciation of Birmingham, as she jokingly loiters on the last syllable in order to emphasise that she has been fully briefed on how it’s commonly delivered in these parts. During this introduction, Kater continues to confidently amuse the room when recounting a recent incident on this tour of the UK which resulted in her being trapped in a doorway for “two hours” on account of her ingrained Canadian politeness, matched only by the equally polite British opponent before her, both parties unwilling to yield to the others use of that old familiar phrase, “No, after you”.

Kater, a wholly dedicated exponent of Appalachian music, appears before the almost sold out hall, armed solely with her banjo to accompany her, an instrument which Kater actually studied under the guidance of tonight’s headliner. The first offering is ‘Little Pink’, a song taken from Kater’s 2016 album, ‘Nine Pin’, an album consisting of 15 songs, all of which where recorded in just a single day. ‘Little Pink’ begins with a defiant picking pattern, one that vacillates under the vocals for the duration of the song. The song is a taken from the West Virginian band, Chance McCoy and the Appalachian String Band. A band whom Kater might have encountered during her study period in Virginia, a portion of time which she confesses was the catalyst for the next song, ‘Southern Girl’.

Kater’s vocals are delivered without pretension. Her voice is sincere and maintains an integrity which is essential when performing music born out of such traditions. Before the introduction of her next song, ‘Harvest and the Plough’, Kater lays down the gauntlet with the tantalising offer of a free copy of her album for anyone in the audience willing to dance the waltz to accompany her playing. Almost before Kater has finished declaring the terms, a yelp from the audience signals that a pair of willing candidates have been found. Not only does the couple in question perform a mightily impressive waltz as accompaniment to Kater’s performance, they do so, not from the aisle, as anticipated, but they join Kater on the town hall stage. As the audiences appreciation for both performances subsides, there is a shout from the crowd: “Seven!” punctuates the applause, an amusing and well executed reference to Strictly Come Dancing’s Len Goodman and his trademark catchphrase.

As the waltzing pair leave the stage, Kater welcomes another guest to join her. Much of the audience cheer as Carolina Chocolate Drops multi-instrumentalist, Hubby Jenkins joins Kater to perform ‘Hangman’s Reel’. Jenkins’ provides a spellbinding percussive accompaniment, playing the bones with such a mastery, that much of the room explode with rapturous applause upon the songs conclusion. Kater performs two more songs, ‘Nine Pin’ and ‘Saint Elizabeth’, before bidding us farewell. She will be back in the city in early February of 2018 at the splendid Kitchen Garden Cafe in the heart of King’s Heath.

The time has come for the arrival of tonight’s headliner. Giddens strides across the stage barefooted and firmly geared up for the show, accompanied by one hell of group of musicians, including multi-instrumentalists, the aforementioned Hubby Jenkins and ‘Freedom Highway’ producer, Dirk Powell. The thunderous union of all on stage is the genesis for ‘Going to Write Me a Letter’, a cover of Ola Belle Reed. The pace of the show is rapid, with Giddens relieving herself of the banjo, picking up the fiddle, before offering up the briefest of context to the next instalment which see’s Giddens engage in a bout of dulling fiddles with Powell for a whirlwind performance of ‘Fiddle Tune’, ‘Pateroller’ and ‘Black Annie’.
The next song see’s the first appearance of material taken from Giddens’ latest album, ‘Freedom Highway’. ‘The Love We Almost Had’ once again, causes the hall to erupt upon the culmination of the last note. At this point in proceedings, things take a harrowing turn, as Giddens’ prefaces the performance of ‘At the Purchaser’s Option’ with the story of how she came to write the song. It transpires that whilst reading a newspaper from the mid 1700s, she made an alarming discovery. In the equivalent of today’s classified adverts, Giddens came across a seller offering up a female slave, with an option to purchase the victim’s nine month old baby.

After the effecting narrative covered in the previous song, the instrumental, ’Following the North Star’ affords the room a momentary respite from starkness so poignantly conveyed by Giddens. The material taken from the new album sits beside some of the most revered material from the bluegrass tradition. It is easy to understand as to why the album’s release has heralded so much acclaim. Tonight’s setlist is split evenly between Giddens’ compositions and references to the greats of the past.

During the rest of the set, Giddens will pay homage to some exceptional pioneers of the past – Aretha Franklin – ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’, The Staple Singers – ‘Freedom Highway’, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe – ‘Lonesome Road’ and ‘Up Above My Head’.

The audience has lapped up every moment of tonight’s stellar performance. Giddens thanks the hall and requests that they continue their support by purchasing physical copies of the work, rather than resorting to the likes of Spotify. Let’s hope that the hall’s obvious affection for traditional sensibilities extends to the way in which they acquire music. Something tells me that Giddens has nothing to worry about where this bunch are concerned.

Reviewer: Chris Curtis

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