Subscriber OnlyMusicReview

Rhiannon Giddens review: Joyous performance from artist who straddles genres with ease

This Vicar Street show features the Limerick-based singer and composer as a roots rock star, but folk isn’t forgotten

Rhiannon Giddens

Vicar Street, Dublin

Rhiannon Giddens is not short of plaudits. The American singer, instrumentalist and composer has won two Grammys, including the award for best folk album in 2022 with her partner, Francesco Turrisi. And last year, along with her fellow composer Michael Abels, she received the Pulitzer music prize for Omar, an opera based on the 1831 autobiography of a west African scholar, Omar ibn Said, who was forced into slavery in the United States.

But there is something special about playing in front of an adopted home audience (Giddens lives in Limerick), especially one containing your two Irish children and your extended family. And so it is perfectly understandable that Giddens chokes up a little on Sunday evening when she mentions them. This, however, is not a night marked by tears. It is joy all around as she and her sharp five-piece band play a two-hour set of remarkable variety and dexterity topped off by her wonderfully full and expressive voice.

Certainly, it is a surprise to hear that birthday girl – Giddens has just turned 47 – had surgery to correct a problem with her voice as recently as December, but all is well now, or seems to be. If she’s holding back it’s not obvious, though the set is punctuated by many instrumentals, all fascinating in their own right but perhaps inserted to ease the strain on her voice.

Indeed, the show – the final date of a short European tour – opens with a fiery version of Following the North Star, her instrumental from Freedom Highway, her 2017 album. This features Giddens’s dynamic banjo playing. One of her signature achievements is helping to research the African American heritage of the instrument. As such, her lighthearted revelation that hers is the banjo on Beyoncé’s deliciously subversive Texas Hold ’Em, a hit in both country and R&B charts, possibly masks her pride in being a part of such a key cultural moment.


Not surprisingly, much of the set features songs from her most recent album, You’re the One, but it is notable how much stronger they sound. She alludes to that, saying it is a pleasure to hear the material develop in live performance. The likes of Wrong Kind of Right, Hen in the Foxhouse and You Louisiana Man are delivered with real power and panache. Even her punchy tribute to Aretha Franklin, Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad, glows greater in the warm embrace of the packed audience. She’s having a good time but still remembers that it’s not the same for everybody. The stark Another Wasted Life reminds us that the American justice system can be frighteningly harsh and cruel. It is not her only social comment: she also wisely points to the benefits throughout history of migration and cultural assimilation, for which she is an exemplar.

This show is Rhiannon Giddens as a roots rock star, though her folk persona is not altogether forgotten. Towards the end she delivers a beautiful a cappella version of the Appalachian ballad Pretty Saro. Giddens’s ability to straddle genres with ease is remarkable. The same can be said for her excellent band. The rhythm section of Jason Sypher (bass) and Attis Clopton (drums) is both subtle and strong while her sometime cowriter Dirk Powell excels on button accordion, keyboards, fiddle, vocals and guitar. Niwel Tsumbu, who has lived in Cork since arriving from Congo in 2004, is also outstanding on guitar and vocals, while Turrisi adds waves of Hammond-like organ and other keyboards. The night ends with a joyous rendition of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel classic Up Above My Head. It plays in my head all the way home.