Rhiannon Giddens
Carolina Theatre, Durham
Thursday, April 2, 2015

Rhiannon Giddens seems to have her sights set on superstardom. From the big instrumental arrangements and flashy light rigs to the longing gazes toward the back of the sold-out Carolina Theatre last week, the singer’s desire for something bigger lingered in the air.

On her debut solo record, Tomorrow is My Turn, the Carolina Chocolate Drop tries to establish herself as a talented, versatile solo powerhouse—and, above all, a singer. Though she’s a solid fiddle and banjo player, she only picked up those instruments a few times during the performance. The front half of the set pulled almost exclusively from her new record—“Shake Sugaree,” “Waterboy,” “O Love is Teasin’” and so on. Everything sounded fine, nice and very well-rehearsed.

After performing “Black is the Color,” Giddens dug at my less-than-glowing review of her record, especially a line where I compared her interpretation of the tune to Sesame Street bumper music. I was hoping that, live, the song may sound a little less goofy, but no such luck. At least she kicked off her high-heel shoes afterward, a move that seemed to give the rest of the show a newfound looseness and energy.

When Giddens launched into “Ruby Are You Mad at Your Man?” from the Drops’ Leaving Eden, she provided scorching contrast to the more polite and polished tunes from the night’s first half. Hubby Jenkins led a rousing rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Can’t Nobody Hide From God.” Backing vocals from Giddens’ sister and Greensboro singer-songwriter Lalenja Harrington helped transform it into a stomping number that almost made me wish I went to church.

Giddens let the stage so that Jenkins could lead “Buck Creek Girls” before she returned for the powerful “Tomorrow is My Turn,” one of the bright spots on the record that shares the name. She flexed her vocal might again with a Scotch-Gaelic medley. The clarity, strength and speed with which she delivers this incredibly complex number is impressive, and it highlighted the current conundrum of her career: It feels like a waste for Giddens to settle into the over-produced, adult-contemporary tunes of Tomorrow is My Turn when she’s capable of so much more.