Dirk Powell and Rhiannon Giddens: Made for Each Other

If ever two musicians were destined to meet—and adore each other—it’s Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell. They’re both hugely committed to old-time music, and the history that created it. And they’re both great singers, as well as multi-instrumentalists who can play anything they touch.

rhiannon giddens and dirk powell

Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell, in a rare when they weren’t moving too fast to blur the camera. (Jim Motavalli photo)

In a sublime show at Hartford’s Infinity Tour, the last stop on their tour, they fit together like peanut butter and jelly. Giddens has been great forever (you need to own the Carolina Chocolate Drops albums), but with the release of her first T-Bone Burnett-produced solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, she’s really connected to the public.

Giddens was the BBC’s Folk Singer of the Year, and she got the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, as well as induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. The Hartford show was sold out.

Powell is just as great (as artist and producer). He’s definitely up there with Bruce Molsky as a solo old-time performer—on any instrument. Let’s see, between them, Giddens and Powell played banjo (both), fiddle (both) accordion (him), piano (him), guitar (both) and voice (both). Here’s a video from the show, “At the Purchaser’s Option”:

If ever two musicians were destined to meet—and adore each other—it’s Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell. They’re both hugely committed to old-time music, and the history that created it. And they’re both great singers, as well as multi-instrumentalists who can play anything they touch.
In a sublime show at Hartford’s Infinity Tour, the last stop on their tour, they fit together like peanut butter and jelly. Giddens has been great forever (you need to own the Carolina Chocolate Drops albums), but with the release of her first T-Bone Burnett-produced solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, she’s really connected to the public.
Giddens was the BBC’s Folk Singer of the Year, and she got the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, as well as induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. The Hartford show was sold out. Here they are with a Cajun medley:

Powell is just as great (as artist and producer). He’s definitely up there with Bruce Molsky as a solo old-time performer—on any instrument. Let’s see, between them, Giddens and Powell played banjo (both), fiddle (both) accordion (him), piano (him), guitar (both) and voice (both).

I love what Steve Earle said about Powell: “”Dirk Powell is a badass. To the bone. He is, in addition to being the greatest old-time banjo player alive, a graduate student of both mountain and Cajun fiddle styles and diatonic button accordion, an instrument that fights you back, take it from me, I’ve tried. He is a singer, songwriter, producer, recording engineer, and all in all an artist of unique vision and unbending integrity. As far as I can tell there is no genre of American roots music that Dirk doesn’t understand, no primordial mode he can’t master, no polyrhythmic code he can’t crack. He also cooks the best sauce piquante I have ever tasted. Be forewarned: Dirk Powell and I WILL make a record together someday.”

Sorry, Steve, Rhiannon Giddens beat you to it. He’s all over her second solo album, Freedom Highway, as both musician and co-writer of some of the tunes. From that album, here’s the harrowing “Julie”:

In Hartford, the duo roamed far stylistically, and in a wonderful way. They played Cajun medleys with Powell on squeezebox and vocals, and Giddens on fiddle—sounding as if she was born on the bayou. They played sophisticated Quebecois fiddle music, stomping old-time standards (“Georgia Buck,” “Motherless Children,” “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”), and one-offs—a take on Elton John’s “The Border Song” for an Aretha Franklin tribute the next night, an original torch song for a maybe-happening TV show set in Maine in the 30s, even a Mexican number “Mal Hombre,” which Giddens sang with aplomb—and acted out, too.

Maybe Steve Earle actually will make a duo record with Powell before Giddens does, since Freedom Highway is a many-splendored affair featuring Hubby Jenkins and Leyla McCalla from the Drops, as well as Powell and many more. Somebody certainly should. The best idea would be for one of the Giddens/Powell shows to be recorded and a live album released from that.

Both these performers are incredibly busy, so the tour may not happen again soon. But it was clear from their interplay on stage that a lifetime bond has been formed. Giddens said she feels “very blessed” to have found Powell, and from his reaction to that, the feeling is mutual.

One thought on “Dirk Powell and Rhiannon Giddens: Made for Each Other

  1. Saw them five times in three days at Celtic Colours in Cape Breton Nova Scotia, 13 to 15 October. They were unbelievably good. Great rapport with each other, other performers with whom shared venues and with their audiences.

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