Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom Highay
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Freedom Highay (Nonesuch, 2017)

Rhiannon Giddens

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

Rhiannon Gidden's "Freedom Highway" takes an expansive look at the Black experience in America. "Better Get It Right the First Time" utilizes a gospel-y call and response format to tell the tragic story of a Black life that mattered. However, Giddens goes all the way back to slavery days for the lyrics to "At the Purchaser's Option." In between, "Birmingham Sunday" hearkens back to the Civil Rights movement and that relatively recent fight for freedom. This is serious, powerful stuff, and Giddens has created a statement just as powerful as Beyoncé's "Lemonade," even though it will never gather the same commercial acclaim.

One of the best songs is "Baby Boy," a lullaby to The Savior built upon Gidden's expressive banjo work and featuring supportive backing vocals. The album closes with a rousing cover of Staples Singers' "Freedom Highway." Rather than painting a portrait of suffering, as so many of these songs do, this anthem is instead filled with encouragement. The song is comprised of soulful organ, Stax-y horns and moody and Pops Staples-esque electric guitar. After all the hurt-filled songs that precede it, this enthusiastic song leaves the listener filled with hope, ready to march again for freedom.

Giddens is blessed with an expressive singing voice, which is especially showcased during her cover of Mississippi John Hurt's "The Angels Laid Him Away," where Giddens takes on an amazingly Hurt-like vocal turn. The track is just Giddens and an acoustic guitar, and it's easy to imagine Giddens singing it exactly this way at a '60s folk club.

There's no way to ease on down the road that is "Freedom Highway" lightly. This is a hard road to travel, but travel it we must if we ever want to make America a fair and just society. Giddens likely won't get much airplay beyond empathetic NPR stations. But this is educational music, in the best sense of the term and well worth the listening investment.

CDs by Rhiannon Giddens

Freedom Highay, 2017 Factory Girl, 2015 Tomorrow is My Turn, 2015

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