Since then, her connection to the Dylan repertoire has only grown, thanks to one particularly notable instance. The producers of NBC’s “Parenthood” were in the audience for a New Basement Tapes performance, and shortly afterwards contacted Giddens to appear alongside singer/songwriter Iron & Wine on the show’s series finale, which aired in January. The result was a canonical moment in tear-jerking television, with the pair singing a cover of Dylan’s “Forever Young” over the show’s ending montage.
Work resumed on her own record shortly after the Basement Tapes project concluded with Burnett at the helm. Thoughts of Ruby drifted back into her mind. Of the four songs on which she takes the vocal lead on Lost On the River, it was “Spanish Mary” that would most profoundly impact the tenor of Tomorrow Is My Turn. It brims with intrigue, with peaks and valleys limited only by her own vocal range, and it exemplifies the kind of inborn drama that might not have fit within the Chocolate Drops oeuvre. When Giddens’ first-ever solo tour opened at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn. this past weekend, it was “Spanish Mary” that launched the set, executed with the same methodical builds and releases heard on the New Basement Tapes’ record.
Though there may be inescapable similarities to a Chocolate Drops show on paper, Giddens solo tour is shaping up to be anything but. Bassist Jason Sypher, with whom she worked on Dossett’s The Gathering project, and drummer Jamie Dick of Abigail Washburn’s City of Refuge band round out the group’s expanded rhythmic component. Arranged with dual percussion, upright bass and cello, the band’s sonic depth stood toe-to-toe with the festival’s preeminent drone musicians Ben Frost and Liz Harris. It was the technical details, however, that fully sets this tour apart from the Chocolate Drops. Mikey Cummings, an Asheville-based lighting designer who set the moods for Old Crow Medicine Show and Sturgill Simpson, created a high-contrast array to elevate the dramatic thrust of Giddens’ solo program, while farola fernandina streetlamps stand watch around the stage’s perimeter.
Elements of the exuberant barn dance that is a typical Chocolate Drops show remain — guitarist Hubby Jenkins, cellist Malcolm Parsons and multi-instrumentalist Rowan Corbett all take their turns. That blueprint, however, has been fine-tuned and modernized with an emphasis on theatricality to showcase the presence that Giddens spent years in the conservatory honing. There, she was the diva upon whom the lights concentrated, adorned and adored accordingly. Even at a festival that confronted the recent conversation around gender-ratio bias head-on with performances by the likes of Laurie Anderson, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Harris’ Grouper project and Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, Giddens’ buzz was again among the loudest.
“A lot of festivals talk about being diverse,” Giddens told her Sunday audience. “This is a diverse festival.”
At Big Ears, her profile had already been building before her Sunday afternoon set at the Bijou Theatre. Kronos Quartet, the adventurous string troupe who’ve been breaking barriers between popular music and the avant-classical world for more than 40 years, headlined as artists in residence with the intent of celebrating every corner of their vast catalog. That included a reprise of last year’s collaboration with Giddens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Saturday at the Tennessee Theatre to include another recitation of “Mouth Music.” As is becoming the trend with that piece, a standing ovation followed.
Kronos founder and first violin David Harrington would note that it was another number that Giddens had rehearsed with them that morning which he anticipated the most , a sparse, but powerful rendition of Mahalia Jackson’s “God Shall Wipe the Tears Away.” It was an opportunity for the group to explore music rarely found in the string-quartet stratum, a hallmark of their upcoming collaboration with Giddens. Harrington is also a believer in her fledgling songwriting abilities, as she’s currently at work on a commission to create a performance piece for the Kronos Quartet likely to be unveiled toward the end of 2015 following the conclusion of her solo tour, which comes to North Carolina this week.
“We had a chance to revisit that this weekend,” Giddens said outside of the Bijou following the conclusion of her first solo show. “David said he’s wanting something that’s really not something represented in the string quartet, something in the vein of string band stuff with a Mississippi Sheiks feel to it.”