Sunday, October 9, 2016

Austin City Limits: James Bay & Rhiannon Giddens (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Boy in the Attic I changed channels to KPBS and watched an Austin City Limits episode I’d been looking forward to because one of the featured performers was the incredible young singer Rhiannon Giddens. I’d first heard her on the PBS documentary about the album Look Again to the Wind, a recently released tribute to Johnny Cash’s Native American-themed concept album Bitter Tears. A lot of modern-day alt-country artists were hired for that project, including Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Norman and Nancy Blake and Kris Kristofferson, but Giddens’ performance of the last song on Bitter Tears, “The Vanishing Race,” stood out. The original song by Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton projected the doomed romanticism of the “vanishing” of America’s Native people, but Giddens — who, like Jimi Hendrix, is part African-American and part-Native American — wrote a searing verse of her own, melody as well as lyrics, insisting that Native Americans aren’t “vanishing” at all; they’ve survived America’s attempted genocide against them and they will survive the current environmental and economic catastrophes facing this nation and the world. I immediately fell in love (metaphorically) with Rhiannon Giddens and bought her own album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, as well as a download of her EP Factory Girl and The New Basement Tapes, in which she and Elvis Costello, along with the leader of Mumford and Sons and other modern artists on the cusp between folk and rock, were brought in to take lyrics Bob Dylan had written but never set to music and put their own melodies to them.

Alas, on this show Giddens performed second and the first half-hour was dedicated to a British singer-songwriter named James Bay. I can say a few nice things about him, like he has the same birthday as I do (September 4) and in his little interview in the middle of the show he pronounced the “t” in “often,” but he’s not all that impressive. He’s cute and boyish, though he wears his hair past his shoulders in 1960’s hippie style, but he’s got a thin little voice that makes it difficult to make out the lyrics — and Austin City Limits didn’t help much by a poor sound mix that allowed his band to overwhelm him. What’s more, his songs sound like he wrote them with the help of a reference book called 1001 Popular Songwriting Clichés, with particular emphasis on the chapter, “How to Sound ‘Sensitive.’”  According to Wikipedia, the 26-year-old Bay started guitar at 11 after hearing Eric Clapton’s “Layla” and signed to a British label called Republic, making two EP’s and a single, “Hold Back the River,” before he put out his first full-length CD, Chaos and the Calm (2015), which went to number one in the British charts and number 15 in the U.S. He’s the sort of performer you want to like but can’t bring yourself to find anything more than simply pleasant, and when during his interview he started citing soul greats like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway as influences, I was amused because he sounds nothing like them — or like Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones, who also influenced him because he said his parents had a musically mixed marriage: mom liked soul, dad liked rock. A pity, then, that his music settled into a neat blandness with none of the passion of any of the people he mentioned as role models! Bay did four songs, including “Hold Back the River,” all of which sounded pretty much the same; since he neither announced them nor were there chyrons to tell us what he was singing at any given moment, it was hard for me to guess at their titles but they appeared to be called “Craving Something I Can Feel,” “Can’t Leave Us Behind” and “Why Don’t You Be You (And I Be Me)?” He reminds me of Adele in his seeming reluctance to write a song about a good relationship, but Bay’s little singer-songwriter whine couldn’t be more different from Adele’s technically soaring and emotionally riveting voice.

Fortunately Rhiannon Giddens came on and saved the day with two old folksongs she covered on Tomorrow Is My Turn, “Spanish Mary” and “Water Boy” (elsewhere I’ve described Giddens as the next in the line of Black — or part-Black — folk contraltos with deep, intensely emotional voices that began with Odetta and continued through Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman — those singers aren’t clones of each other and each are strong individuals, but the similarities are there — so it was appropriate that she do “Water Boy,” an old chain-gang song usually attributed to Leadbelly but recorded by both Harry Belafonte and Odetta), as well as “Go Where I Send Thee,” a traditional Black song she performed in duet with her Black dreadlocked guitarist, Hubby Jenkins, in an arrangement that incorporated the gospel standard “Elijah Rock.” Giddens did fall into one trap common to socially conscious singers — she gave a long lecture against slavery (making the point that there are far worse periods in history she could have lived than today) before going into a song called “You Can Take My Body (But Not My Soul),” which she said was inspired by an 1828 newspaper ad she’d seen for a woman slave that described her various attributes and then mentioned at the bottom that she had a nine-month-old baby that could be included in the deal or not “at the purchaser’s discretion.” The song itself was a riveting combination of “All My Trials” and Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” suggesting that Simone is yet another of Giddens’ foremothers, and after describing this as “a sad love song,” she announced that she would next sing “a mad love song,” “Louisiana Man,” hardly the easygoing Doug Kershaw Cajun romp of that title but a bitter plaint of an abused woman. It’s also worth noting that Giddens’ band is musically eclectic — among current rock outfits only Arcade Fire matches her in the sheer number of instruments used — and though Giddens plays guitar and violin her main instrument is banjo, and her Austin City Limits band included a second banjo player as well as a rather grizzled-looking guy (possibly her husband, Irish musician Michael Laffan) who doubled Irish fiddle and bandoneon. Rhiannon Giddens’ CD’s aren’t easy to find — I was startled that even a store as seemingly hip as M-Theory Music in Mission Hills wasn’t stocking either Tomorrow Is My Turn or her previous albums with her group the Carolina Chocolate Drops (itself a name dripping with ironic social comment; plenty of great Black jazz records in the 1920’s and 1930’s went out with openly racist names like the Chocolate Dandies, Harlem Footwarmers, Black Aces, Chocolate Drops or Cotton Pickers!) — but she’s worth listening to and deserving of major stardom.