Rhiannon Giddens / Punch Brothers

Southern Fried Festival:
Perth Concert Hall
31st July 2015

Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens

Perth’s Southern Fried won the 2014 ‘Best Small Festival’ crown at the Scottish Events Awards, rather begging the question “What’s a ‘small’ festival?” It’s certainly getting bigger, more ambitious, laying on an outdoor stage with free acts, open mic events, music in outlying venues, soul food, hot rod car parades, and so on, as well as the major concerts. I have had the feeling that this year’s Fried was veering a little towards Country and Gospel and neglecting Soul and Blues. But having said that the two opening concert draws had clout, which was just what was needed.

It wasn’t Rhiannon Giddens’ first visit, having appeared here before with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Fronting her own six-piece gave her much more musical control, and enabled her to show off her vocal range. It’s extensive, she can go from sweet to raw, soft to stand-back, in a heartbeat, and that’s perfect for her mission to tear down the Chinese walls between the various musics of America, and for her status as a matchless interpretive singer.

The emphasis of her set was indeed firmly on interpretation. There was one original song, which she had composed, following her intensive study of African-American history, about how slaves, whose liberation by the Union army left them rootless, lived in squalid camps close to wherever the army was encamped. There was another original song – ‘Spanish Mary’ – from the Basement Tapes collection, with lyrics by Bob Dylan. Pretty much everything else was gathered in from elsewhere – Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Jacques Wolfe, Cousin Emmy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her ‘Puirt a Beul’, starting in clear, faultless Gaelic and developing into an exploration of guttural rhythm-making, deservedly drew a standing ovation. I was on my feet too. In fact there wasn’t one duff song in the whole set.

Rhiannon yielded the stage once, to her principle banjo sideman Hubby Jenkins, who gave us ‘Parchman Farm’, accompanying himself with abrasive attack on guitar. Hubby is well-known as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Every member of the band shone, but I’m going to make special mention of cellist Malcolm Parson. When Rhiannon gave us the Appalachian-Scottish ballad ‘Black is the Color’, Malcolm put by his cello in favour of a melodica, almost injecting a touch of Augustus Pablo. At one point he and Rhiannon were holding a musical conversation, taking alternate phrases, she singing scat. At another point his solo improvisation included phrases from John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’. Now this is what I call breaking down walls! Malcolm is a jazz enthusiast who plays old-timey music, travelling, as it were, in reverse to the direction taken by someone like Charlie Haden.

The bad news of course is that by the time you read this, Rhiannon and her band will be packing up their gear and flying back to the States, so if you want to hear more live in the short term, you’d better fly out after her! Otherwise, I suggest you tune into BBC Radio Scotland’s Another Country with Ricky Ross on Tuesday 4th August at 9pm, when sounds from the whole festival weekend are due to be broadcast.

Question: If Rhiannon Giddens is first on stage, who can follow? I’m going to write this part of the review from the point of view of someone new to both the Punch Brothers and to the phenomenon of ‘Newgrass’, for the benefit of readers in the same position. Those of you who are in the know, please be patient. Thank you.

Given that a genre of music comes up, establishes itself, has recognisable and comfortable parameters that musicians accept and settle into, it is nonetheless inevitable that other musicians arise from within that genre and want to explore. That exploration doesn’t just expand the existing genre, it often creates an entirely new one, taking value from the old and yet creating new value. This happened with Bluegrass; people still play Bluegrass, thank heaven, and long may they continue. But now people play Newgrass too, thank heaven, and long may they continue.

Punch Bros
Punch Bros

Having said that, are the Punch Brothers actually a Newgrass band? I would say only inasmuch as it’s hellishly difficult to put them anywhere else. What they are is an outfit creating innovative songs and music, using Bluegrass instrumentation and musical vocabulary. Initially, therefore, they are hard to get into. Their first number is hardly explosive, creeping up on the audience rather than mugging them with brilliance. There is a spikey almost camp feel to the act, much due to the naturally comedic presentation of the band’s apparent leader, mandolin-player and lead vocalist Chris Thile; if you haven’t heard them before, for a while you’re left seeking a way in, hearing echoes of – oh, I don’t know – Nickel Creek, Béla Fleck, Crosby Stills & Nash, even the Quintette du Hot Club de France! Then suddenly you realise that every single member of the band can shred like a demon, whether it be on fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, or even double bass, and you’re hooked! You can then listen to them as they sway first towards traditional Bluegrass and then float away on a musical trip of their own.

I was at a disadvantage in not knowing any of their songs (yet!). As a result I related most easily to two exceptional items in the act, which showed their remarkable versatility, and were I believe the only ones barring a single traditional number that they had not written themselves. The first was an incredibly precise arrangement of Claude Debussy’s ‘Passepied’ from his Suite Bergamasque. It was delicate, lyrical, and captivating, coming as a complete contrast to the rawness of some of the other numbers in which the band often used the percussive characteristics of their instruments. The second was an a cappella version of ‘The Auld Triangle’ from Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, the last chorus of which we all joined in.

Anyhow, having anchored me safely with those two, the Punch Bothers got right under my skin and stayed there. I am now a fan, and that’s that. They’re back in Scotland on 3rd August – actually up in Shetland – but that concert is sold out, so again your only chance of catching a live concert soon will be to emigrate! Don’t worry though, I’m sure they’ll be back.

Review by Paul Thompson

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