Back in another lifetime when live music still existed I was lucky enough to see Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi play on a cold winter evening in Edinburgh. Despite being in a large concert hall the show was intimate, brooding, frenetic, inspiring.
What was also apparent was the deep connection between the couple, musically and personally – they came from different countries, different worlds and yet they seemed like two halves of one whole. The duo’s previous album ‘there is no Other’ used folk music to show the dangers of a world where discrimination and hatred grow, but it was also about how finding a home in this world can be a devastating struggle for so many. Strange then that coronavirus would soon afterwards force us all to stay in one place, to have a reckoning with what home really means.
During the pandemic the power of music to bring comfort and bridge barriers of time and space became even more important and resulted in this new album They’re Calling Me Home.
An eerie lament begins the album, Giddens’s voice on full force, she sings Calling Me Home a song written by bluegrass legend Alice Gerrard. A deathbed lament and celebration of the power of music seems fitting at such a time. Remember me when I’m gone, remember my stories, remember my songs…sweet traces of gold. Home and death are both places of rest and peace. Folk music lives through time, music always finds a way to survive.
What’s striking is that even though these are old songs the duo’s arrangements are unique and adventurous, as shown on the lively Avalon. The Italian influence of Turrisi has added something so different to Giddens’s music, not just in his percussion sounds but also song choices like Si Dolce el Tormento and Nenna Nenna. Roots music crosses oceans as well as time.
I Shall Not Be Moved reminds us that old songs of protest are as sadly relevant as ever. Giddens has such an ability to convey emotional truths – it’s impossible to overstate her talent. Fiddle song Black as Crow is another poignant lament, a reminder that loyalty, strength and love can endure even the hardest trials.
Facing death is an inescapable aspect of existence, even more so this year with the daily tolls a constant reminder of our shared mortality. History offers comfort in the stories and songs of those who have gone before, connecting us to the human struggle over time. O Death may have been sung before many times, but that does not make this new version any less powerful. The percussion of Turrisi is so potent here, and on the haunting closing version of Amazing Grace.
In a recent interview Giddens said, ‘Generations of people have gone through things as bad or worse for many, many years and these songs connect us to those generations. There is a comfort in that: We are not alone. We’re just the newest kid on the sad block.’ Despite everything music survives and saves us, always.