On “Birmingham Sunday,” one of the many highlights from “Freedom Highway,” the second solo album from Rhiannon Giddens, cultures and generations collide beautifully.
The Richard Farina folk tale, first cut by his sister-in-law Joan Baez in 1964, details the bombing of a Baptist church by the Ku Klux Klan and has become widely recognized as an anthem of the civil rights era. Giddens’ take is equally solemn, grounded in steadfast fervency but illuminated by the spotless tonality of her singing and the swelling yet subtle support of a choir. At first, it hits like a vintage Dylan song, but one sung by Sandy Denny during her late-1960s tenure with Fairport Convention. The performance doesn’t overstate the song’s potency. Instead, it relishes in control and unwavering confidence.
“Freedom Highway” beams regularly with such brilliance. Unlike Giddens’ remarkable 2015 solo debut, “Tomorrow is My Turn,” which emphasized stylistic dexterity by downplaying her own material, “Freedom Highway” is more centralized and sports eight original tunes that blend in so naturally with Mississippi John Hurt’s “The Angels Laid Him Away” and the Pops Staples-penned title tune (a true Civil Rights document) that it’s often difficult to tell who wrote what.
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That’s mostly because of the astonishingly pure voice that Giddens possesses. On “Hey Bebe,” co-written with Americana journeyman Dirk Powell (who also co-produced “Freedom Highway” with Giddens), the singing glides along with the joyous but decidedly rootsy jazz/blues support of trumpeter Alphonso Horne. This is “Freedom Highway” at its merriest. But at the other extreme is the original “At the Purchaser’s Option,” a declaration of identity by a young mother and slave sung not with bluesy remorse but with subdued defiance and a touch of grace.
It’s easy to focus exclusively on the refreshingly unforced cast of Giddens’ voice, so much so that hearing “Following the North Star” revert to the instrumental string fortitude that fueled her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops is a bonus. With the singer on minstrel banjo, the tune nicely compliments this sublime sophomore work from one of the country’s most gifted roots-conscious ambassadors.
As a footnote, “Freedom Highway” coincides with the first CD issue of “Factory Girl,” a five-song EP initially released digitally and on vinyl in late 2015. Culled from the same T Bone Burnett-produced sessions that yielded “Tomorrow is My Turn,” it similarly champions the astonishing vocal diversity that distinguished that album.
An Appalachian/Celtic spirit runs through these songs. “Mouth Music” embraces the celebratory side, with Gaelic vocal acrobatics that morph into beat box-worthy grooves. But the title tune is simply devastating. It’s a different kind of slavery saga, rich in Irish elegance but saddled with unmovable oppression. Not surprisingly, Giddens sings it with a beauty as deep and pure as the song is relentlessly dire.