Saturday 30 November 2019


St. George’s Church, Brighton, Sat 23rd Nov

If I’ve not seen Rhiannon Giddens’ rootsy Americana before, five years ago I did catch Dom Flemen
s, her compatriot from the old-time music outfit the Carolina Chocolate Drops. At the time I found Flemens the Flava Flav of roots music, broad of smile and as good-humoured as he was black-humoured. 

And you could go some way portraying Giddens as its Chuck D, righteous and soulful. Except she’s at the same time its Lisa Simpson, even if she clutches a banjo rather than sports a sax. She’s as transmissive of knowledge as Flemons was infectious of smile. Back-announcing a song about the slave trade, she confesses she’s “that girl at the party” who never lets that sort of thing go. (I don’t know who Flemons would be from the Simpsons. The analogy kind of breaks down there.)

If her staple is roots, a lot of branches turn out to have roots. And the set ranges from acapella folk to Vaudeville show tunes to Gospel. (Yes, Gospel in a Church!) A range extended further by the presence of Francesco Turrisi, who brings in the Mediterranean and South America. The first half closes with a Southern Italian number believed to cure sufferers of spider bites. (No idea if it works, but it’s so exuberant I expect it got the spiders dancing.) They joke about the seeming incongruity of combining the banjo with the Iranian dram, which at least in their hands sounds pretty awesome. Maybe Twenty Twenty will be all about the Banjo/Dram genre.

Giddens programmes all this smartly, closing the set with a poignant acapella vocal about migration, eschewing even a microphone, then following that slug of hard stuff with a rousing Rossetta Thorpe singalong. (For “that girl at the party”, she knows how to party.) And she inhabits each different number, sassing up the show tunes.

But perhaps it fared too far to hold your interest throughout. The highs were no less than sublime, the sparse but precise musical accompaniment, seemingly aware of precisely what was required and what wasn’t, perfectly underlining her vocals. She mentioned the title track of the new album, ’I’m On My Way’, being put up for a Grammy, though it seems way too good to win.

Yet at the other end… An Irish shanty didn’t really come off for me. While I confess folk instrumentals usually lose me, I fared better here than I might. Perhaps because, despite its hokey image, the banjo actually has a spiky sound. Even Turrisi’s tambourine solo worked better than that dread description might suggest, but was still a tambourine solo. (Though I did enjoy the sight of him tuning tambourines, surely the mark of the perfectionist.)

Giddens was originally conservatory trained, but gave it up to reach for music’s roots. And her voice can be an effective instrument indeed, with that unflamboyant inner-strength quality. But it does at time retain the rather mannered diction of the world, which cuts against the sense this music is the history of the socially excluded. Not to suggest you can only sing if you’re straight outta Compton. Just that music is often a dish best served raw.

Speaking of Grammy-nominated numbers…

The Ropetackle, Shoreham-by-Sea, Sun 24th Nov

The one Chris Wood album I actually own, ’Trespasser, always impresses me with the different styles of songwriting it combines. Unusual for folk, which can at its worst feel a restrictive genre. Whereas this gig seemed to more-or-less stick to one style. Possibly because the set-list skewed to the new album ’So Much To Defend’, skipping ’Trespasser’ altogether. But on the other hand that one style was to prove fertile.

He does one song about that great folk staple Superman, in which the big S is reluctantly forced to give up on all that truth and justice business. It employs, and employs well, the comic trick of contrasting the big against the small. (Imagine Superman leaving a note to stop the milk.)

But he has a more common trick, in both senses of the word. He tells an anecdote about getting chucked out of Art College after his photography displayed only “an eye for trivia”. (Not least because ehe was supposed to be studying Graphic Design at the time.) It’s a line he likes enough to put on the front page of his website. For, as he points out, that’s the eye he’s been using ever since.

Contrast him to Bob Dylan, who would fill his songs with iconoclastic characters such as the Jack Of Hearts and Einstein Disguised as Robin Hood. Whereas Wood’s songs feature common folk such as chip shop owners, long-suffering Ebbsfleet football fans and Maureen who’s just learnt how to Skype her grandkids. The title track of ’So Much To Defend’ would be a good example, a series of snapshots of everyday life not so significant in themselves but whose effect is cumulative. They start to compose a bigger picture, albeit one which only has time for the little people. He then drops in a line such as “To the masters of the universe we are naught but fertiliser/ What kind of beast is man”.

And of course he’s right. Evil is always banal. There’s nothing grand or thrilling or even very interesting going on inside Trump’s orange dome or Johnson’s blonde coiffure. They’re not even particularly good at being bad, they’re just petty and grasping. It’s the everyday where life happens. Orwell’s famous line, “if there is hope it lies in the proles”, hovers behind a lot of Wood’s songs.

And his stage persona comes in here, which is… well, it’s not to have a stage persona at all. He professes to dislike “shows”, where everything is rehearsed to the point of rote. That doesn’t turn out to be a problem here.

When he walked out solo, I did feel my expectations shrink. The last time he’d fronted a trio, which seemed one too many. A duo would seem just right. You only need a little colour with Wood, as a little colour goes a long way with him. However, the one-man-band set-up did throw the focus onto the lyrics, and this is odds on to be the most words-foremost gigs I’ve heard this whole year. (Blanck Mass, still to come, seems unlikely to beat it.)

In fact, so much did I enjoy this, that when he suggests it was Spider-Man’s father who came out with the “with great power” line, I didn’t loudly object. Which is really the first time ever.

YouTube seems sparse for live Wood. This is something on the tour before this…


  1. I feel that the first minute of the Chris Wood video you selected here does not do the best possible job of selling his music.

    I had the enormous good fortune of seeing Chris Wood a couple of years ago at a village hall six miles from my house. It was superb: as you say, it's his eye for detail that tells — that, and his economy of storytelling. One line in particular sticks in my mind: "His season ticket's not for sale / He's Ebsfleet till he dies." In itself yt tells you a lot about the man; if you happen to know that Ebbsfleet United only came into existence in 2007, it tells you even more.

    1. Possibly so. But as I said YouTube seems sparse for live Wood. I think it's the young folks that do all the in-gig filming.