By Ernest Barteldes
Joe Henry + Rihannon Giddens
July 18, 2015
Weekend construction on the MTA subway lines are a usual hassle New Yorkers and tourists have to live through all the time, but last weekend’s changes ended up being a recipe for disaster for me because it took me over an hour to get from the East Village to the Prospect Park Bandshell – something that usually does not take more than 25-30 minutes – as a result I was considerably late for Joe Henry’s opening set of Americana music.
Henry performed with a sparse band that featured saxophone, bass, percussion and a multi-instrumentalist who played guitars, mandolin and violin. The tunes were very personal, with lyrics that spoke of heartbreak and loss. All the band members improvised a lot around the songs, giving the evening a jazz-inflected feel. He also featured “Don’t Tell Me,” a collaboration with his sister-in-law Madonna, who also recorded it in her 2000 album “Music,” which he mentioned he’d recorded as a tango while she did it “as a hit – I learned my lesson then.”
After a short break, Rihannon Gibbons came on stage with a small ensemble, kicking the set off with personal covers of songs by Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan and Patsy Cline. She mentioned the ‘roots of American music’ as she went along, playing each songs with great feeling. At one point, she talked about the African-American roots of the banjo and went into an inspired spiritual piece.
The set was divided into different historical parts showcasing the rich musical tradition of the United States. One of the great highlights came when she began to improvise around the melody of one of the songs – an amazing blend between folk music and jazz.
It was a magical evening that reminded me what American music was about – I am so exposed to the ‘world’ aspects of things that I often forget that we do have some great melodies out there that do not really make it into the spotlight – even though they should.