It was something I’d never seen on “Austin City Limits,” or any other show I can recall, for that matter. Rhiannon Giddens informed the crowd during the encore of her Monday night taping at ACL Live that this was the last show of 2016 with her band after a year and a half of touring — and then proceeded to go around the stage and share a warm embrace with all seven band members.
It was a remarkably graceful moment for an artist who exudes grace, even under pressure. The show got off to a bumpy start when executive producer Terry Lickona made a rare faux-pas by mispronouncing Giddens’ first name in his introduction. “It’s Rhi-ANN-on, rhymes with Shannon,” she noted after the first song. (Or, like the Fleetwood Mac song “Rhiannon,” for those who can remember back to before this extraordinarily talented North Carolina musician was born.)
On top of that, an apparent technical glitch in the opening song required it to be redone. Not big deal in the old days when editing makes such things invisible, but with this show being livestreamed on the internet, there was nothing to do but make light of it. “Here’s a tune y’all may have heard before,” Giddens quipped. The audience didn’t seem to mind at all, as the fascinating number, with lyrics by Bob Dylan that Giddens set to her own music, provided a forceful kickoff to the 80-minute concert.
It helped, perhaps, that the second song in the set was Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind.” Giddens quickly shook off those early snags and had the room spellbound with a voice that tapped directly into mountain country even as it radiated with hints of her early operatic abmitions. The Patsy Cline hit “She’s Got You” kept Giddens and her bandmates planted in country territory before she steered in a decidedly different direction with the intense and deeply bluesy “Waterboy,” one of several tunes she sang that dealt with the struggles of slaves in the 19th century.
Giddens spoke eloquently about those roots in prefacing a couple of songs, noting that she’s spent a lot of time reading about the subject. “The way I dealt with the emotionality of that is just by writing songs,” she explained before the stripped-down number “Julie,” which featured just Giddens on banjo and Dirk Powell on fiddle.
Powell, who also played accordion on a lively creole number, was just one of many impressive and versatile players in Giddens’ cast. She introduced them all enthusiastically later in the show: Hubby Jenkins, guitar/mandolin; Rowan Corbett, guitar/banjo/percussion; Chance McCoy, fiddle; Jason Sypher, bass; Malcolm Parson, cello; and Jamie Dick, drums.
Giddens summoned some deep Celtic influences — she has lived part-time in Ireland since marrying an Irish musician — on the rousing set-closer “Mouth Music” before raising the roof on a medley of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel shouters “That Lonesome Road” and “Up Above My Head” (the latter a highlight of Giddens’ Grammy-nominated 2015 album “Tomorrow Is My Turn”).
She commanded it all from center stage, gloriously dancing barefoot in a black dress with white trim, singing at the top of her lungs and exhorting the crowd to join in. “What a way to go out!” she exclaimed, with a smile for her bandmates that underscored Giddens’ amazing grace.
1. Spanish Mary
2. Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind
3. She’s Got You
5. Last Kind Words
7. That Creole Song
8. Louisiana Man
9. Children, Go Where I Send Thee
10. At the Purchaser’s Option
11. Mouth Music
12. That Lonesome Road/Up Above My Head