The Black Box, Belfast
15th March 2019

This show sold out weeks in advance and it was a packed room that awaited the long-awaited return to Belfast of Rhiannon Giddens. In fact, legend has it that her first appearance outside of the USA was a Real Music Club Show in The Errigle, Belfast several years ago. This show presented by Moving On Music with support from Music Network was the penultimate gig in an eleven-night run.

Credit to the organisers for a well-managed event. The gig started promptly and the bar closed during the two set programme. The sound quality was more than satisfactory.

Rhiannon, barefoot throughout, and Francesco Turrisi took to the stage and without any chat were straight into their set opening with ‘Ten Thousand Songs’ with fiddle and piano accordion followed by a song about Trans- Siberian slave trade. Rhiannon explained that a lot of her work is based upon her interest in “hard history” in particular slavery and race discrimination.

While this might seem off-putting, her ability to pick out individual life stories is what sets her apart. That is alongside just a remarkable voice and very fitting, stark musical backing.

Another highlight of the first half was a lovely version of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’. The real stunner for me was Rhiannon’s ‘At Purchasers Option’. This is based upon an 18th century newspaper advertisement offering a young slave woman for sale with the option to purchase her nine
month old baby, or not as the purchaser so desires.

Both Riahannon and Francesco are now based in Limerick and have been a musical partnership for just over one year. Francesco contributes percussion, accordion and a rare newly designed one string piano. The combination works well, albeit at times a bit different to what one hears on Rhiannon’s recorded work.

The second set opened with a fairly lengthy history of frame drums from Francesco, the highlight of which for me was seeing him use a bicycle pump to inflate and deflate a rubber ring around an Iranian drum to tune it. I can foresee bicycle pumps being compulsory kit for bodhran players

A nice version of ‘Little Margaret’ followed. Rhiannon was in wonderful voice and surprised no one when she told us that she started out as an opera singer. Her voice has a haunting emotional quality, mostly singing of hard times and difficult subjects but well able to hold and enthrall an audience.

They encored with the jaunty ‘Molly Brannigan’ before a richly-deserved standing ovation. Francesco and Rhiannon left the stage and exited through a most appreciative crowd.