Out February 27 2017
By Rob Dickens
Rhiannon Giddens, vocal linchpin for the authentic and engaging trio Carolina Chocolate Drops, set the bar high with her first solo release Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015). Her follow-up Freedom Highway will be released on February 24 2017 (Nonesuch Records).
Giddens is a Grammy Award winner (as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, )was Grammy nominated for her solo debut, received the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Singer of the Year and won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo.
Freedom Highway includes nine original songs Giddens wrote or co-wrote, along with a traditional tune and two civil rights–era songs. Giddens co-produced the album with multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell in his Breaux Bridge, Louisiana studio, with the bulk of recording done in wooden rooms built prior to the Civil War, over an intense eight-day period. Together they assembled the players, which included her touring band, local musicians from the bayou, a soulful horn section from New York, and talented family members.
You can hear the result. It sounds more personal and raw than its predecessor, which contained only one original song.
The opening track is a slow banjo piece ‘At The Purchaser’s Option’, a co-write with Joey Ryan of The Milk Carton Kids, which is a powerful damnation of a slave’s life. Defiantly she cries repeatedly “you can take my body…blood…bones, but not my soul”. ‘The Angels Laid Him Away’ (by Mississippi John Hurt) is another sparse arrangement, with guitar this time, about a poor young boy who was shot. ‘Julie’ is again sparse in instrumentation but heavy with emotion as a banjo enjoys a little embellishment with violin.
‘Birmingham Sunday’ is a civil rights epic song dripping with meaning as it vividly depicts tense historical events in Alabama. ‘Better Get It Right The First Time’ is the first fully-fledged arrangement – brass, electric guitar, chorus – a full gospel treatment with an effectively-different rap section from Gino Abel Terry. ‘We Could Fly’ passes down the generations the spirit about hope and better days. ‘Hey Bebe’ is a joyous event with the most alluring trumpet you will hear for a while – over a percussive underlay, Gidden’s vocals and Alphonso Horne’s trumpet perform a heady duet. ‘Come Love Come’ is a love tale with an electric guitar and banjo intertwining with pronounced effect, while ‘The Love We Almost Had’ has a smooth, jazzy vibe. ‘Baby Boy’ is a masterful lullaby of love and support with added vocals from Lalenja Harrington and Leyla McCalla – the effect is truly hypnotic. ‘Following The North Star’ is a jaunty banjo instrumental and the Staples Singers’ ‘Freedom Highway’ closes proceedings, another powerful civil rights song that commands much respect, with an important contribution from Bri Bhiman.
What we have with the new album is further proof that Rhiannon Giddens is a force with which to be reckoned.
Her emotive, powerful voice and her grasp of music traditions are potent weapons. But add to those, her understanding of the struggles of minorities and their peace-loving unwillingness to be spiritually subjugated and you have a glorious set of statements that demand respect and reflection.
Freedom Highway is a glorious testament.
Freedom Highway Track Listing
1. At the Purchaser’s Option (Rhiannon Giddens/Joey Ryan)
2. The Angels Laid Him Away (Mississippi John Hurt)
3. Julie (Rhiannon Giddens)
4. Birmingham Sunday (Richard Fariña)
5. Better Get It Right the First Time (Rhiannon Giddens/Dirk Powell/Justin Harrington)
6. We Could Fly (Rhiannon Giddens/Dirk Powell)
7. Hey Bébé (Rhiannon Giddens/Dirk Powell)
8. Come Love Come (Rhiannon Giddens)
9. The Love We Almost Had (Rhiannon Giddens/Bhi Bhiman)
10. Baby Boy – ft. Lalenja Harrington & Leyla McCalla (Rhiannon Giddens/Lalenja Harrington)
11. Following the North Star (Rhiannon Giddens)
12. Freedom Highway (ft. Bhi Bhiman) (Roebuck “Pops” Staples)