Preview Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens.
Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens with her second solo release of Freedom Highway may just be about on the brink of popular stardom. Whist coveted and respected in many circles, at the age of 40 she has worked hard for this moment and it is a fitting achievement for a Folk Roots practitioner (and sometime TV actress) who has eventually been rewarded with her talent coming to the attention of a greater audience. She is a Grammy winner, with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and a Nominee, yet again, for Album of the Year of The Americana Music Association. This time the competition may be looking sideways at her as the favourite.
Reviving, interpreting, and recasting traditional material from a variety of sources has been central to Giddens’ career, yet on this release she has written or co-written nine of the 12 tracks.
With "At The Purchaser’s Option" we start the album with the simple but insistent drum, bass and banjo rhythm whilst Giddens sings, the defiant but harrowing tale of a young female slave where the option remains for her baby to be taken from her and sold should the buyer prefer. Immediately the voice pure, mellifluous, and hinting at power, grabs you.
"Julie" continues with banjo and fiddle and sings a narrative between a slave and her mistress shortly before Union soldiers come to her plantation – it highlights the conflict a captive can feel for her captor. Changing centuries Giddens takes us to the Civil Rights movement and the murder of four people in a Baptist church in Alabama. On the Richard Fariña composition, made popular by Joan Baez (not a dissimilar voice and delivery), a choir gives "Birmingham Sunday" the sombre emotion it demands.
Still within these depths Giddens switches genres and we have a soulful "Better Get It Right The First Time" with a Justin Harrington rap telling the story of a Black youth who loses his life after falling in with the wrong crowd – a story that suggests that this is the fate of many Black youths.
I swear you can hear her smiling as she sings!
"Hey Bébé" at last releases us from the seriousness of her message and she sways along with a jazz trombone solo on this lilting upbeat love song. I swear you can hear her smiling as she sings! "The Love We Almost Had" has a lyric of unrequited love with a song that may fit into a jazz genre, if anywhere, as we have a trumpet solo throughout driven by a delicious double bass.
Eventually the album comes to rest with the "Pops" Staples' "Freedom Road". It is a duet with Bhi Bhiman, that might elegantly pull together the album’s journey of taking you through the history of many African Americans over the centuries and the need not to be deflected on their path to justice.
It is a fine piece of music that amply demonstrates her voice and interpretation of several styles.
In a collection of songs mainly about the vicissitudes African Americans have suffered during their history, you can be slightly blinded by the story and overlook the fact that this album is being talked about not because of its protest dialogue, post Trump, but because it is a fine piece of music that amply demonstrates her voice and interpretation of several styles. This is why people will stream, download or buy it. For me it was the personality and beautiful and interpretive voice that pours out of every song. That heartening warmth draws you in and from here; maybe, Rhiannon imparts the history lesson you’ve been recruited to hear.