Several themes ran through Rhiannon Giddens' performance Friday night at the Theatre of Living Arts.
She presented a judicious survey of folk music traditions from the first two-thirds of the 20th century: blues, country, Appalachian ballads, protest songs, gospel. She also paid tribute to women, drawing mainly on songs written by or linked to female singers. And she presided over her own coming-out party: Giddens recently released her first solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, after four studio records with the African American string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. The 90-minute show put her talents as singer, fiddler, banjo-player, and bandleader on display.
Giddens is poised, confident, and an ardent music historian. With a seated audience - mostly white and mostly on the north side of 50 - the evening had a hint of a repertory performance: a folk-music sampler, with Giddens briefly identifying the provenance of each song.
She introduced "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?" by early country-music star Cousin Emmy, saying, "I'm going to start with her version, then take it somewhere else." The song built from Giddens accompanying herself on clawhammer banjo into an exuberant dance tune fueled by Rowan Corbett's clattering bones-playing.
Giddens' approach is both studious and personal: She paid tribute to Odetta, Nina Simone, Patsy Cline, and Dolly Parton, but she wasn't imitative. Her burnished alto, which ranged from bluesy growl to a tongue-twisting rush of Gaelic, found its home in ballads such as Simone's "Tomorrow is My Turn" and "Lost in the River #20," one of several New Basement Tapes songs of newly discovered Dylan lyrics, from the project she participated in with Elvis Costello and others.
Backed by her three fellow Chocolate Drops (cellist Malcolm Parson provided many standout solos), plus double-bassist Justin Sypher, drummer Jamie Dick, and two backing vocalists, Giddens honored and extended folk traditions. She's not living in the past: Learning on Twitter of an averted protest by TLA union workers, she inserted her own "Factory Girl" into the set list.
Giddens will be part of a Tuesday gospel tribute at the White House, and she ended her main set with a lively medley of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Lonesome Road" and "Up Above My Head." She's a thoughtful curator and a gracious, multifaceted performer.