As both Rhiannon Giddens (with Francisco Turrisi) and Aldous Harding are about to tour Australia, it’s only right for Wind Back Wednesday to flip back the pages five years to a time when they both seemingly came from the clouds with transformative approaches and a compelling presence.
For each of them this was her first solo album. For both this was a declaration of something special at play.
And for me, there was a story behind each discovery.
Tomorrow Is My Turn (Nonesuch)
Aldous Harding (Spunk)
There was a moment in an already crowded-with-highlights show in New York's Town Hall theatre where you could almost feel the ping! of brains snapping to and thinking “wow, this is the real thing and I’m here to see it”.
It wasn’t Patti Smith singing backing vocals for Joan Baez or another start turn by the instrumentalists of The Punch Brothers – as eye/ear catching as they were, particularly Smith’s clear debt of gratitude to the folk legend. Nor even the way Gillian Welch and David Rawlings pitched up like they were regular joes asked to help out, then owned the room with nothing more than their quiet genius.
It was instead when Rhiannon Giddens - known to some of us already as one of the voices in the southern gospel/folk/roots revivalists Carolina Chocolate Drops, but otherwise lacking in wide public profile -stepped forward and sang the old quasi-spiritual, Water Boy.
She had a voice of depth and resonance; she carried a sense of history lightly without losing touch with the grain of the story; she had a presence that was part striking looks and part striking lack of neediness; and she sang the hell out of the song without ever feeling like it was being wrung out of her.
Then Giddens came back and sang two Gaelic folk songs with equal aplomb and even greater flexibility and later joined in on some straight country folk numbers. Holy hell, she was good, really good, and she could do anything couldn’t she?
Tomorrow Is My Turn, her first solo album, produced by T Bone Burnett, the man who curated that concert and the music for the film which had sparked it (the Coen brothers’ story of the New York folk scene pre-Dylan, Inside Llewyn Davis) backs up both of those reactions.
Giddens, working mostly with older/traditional material, can walk as naturally in the ‘60s-styled country of Don't Let It Trouble Your Mind (which could easily be a slice of old honky tonker Jean Shepard) and She’s Got You (Patsy Cline’s marvellous tearjerker) as in the skiffle gospel of Up Above My Head. That’s almost easy though, money for old rope for a good singer, some might suggest.
But listen to her light a torch with Nina Simone’s Tomorrow Is My Turn and while she doesn’t have the depth of pain and anger that fills Simone’s takes, she elegantly links chanson and American song. Then see how she takes the Appalachian Mountains’ traditional, Black Is The Color (something Carolina Chocolate Drops might do) and spins it through a jazz cycle that puts a groove underneath while pulling away from flourishes for the sad gospel, Round About The Mountain, with Burnett heavying up the tone with little more than prominent bass notes.
And yes, Waterboy is here, beefed up with a bit of a thump in the drums but still a showcase for a voice that is going to keep growing into something that will shake a few rafters on its own.
In a smaller room, in a smaller city, in another corner of the world (Newtown’s Vanguard in this case), I had a remarkably similar gobsmacking moment to that Giddens solo in New York when Aldous Harding – eccentric New Zealander Hanna Topp – began to sing.
About a minute into a slowly devolving number that would normally be called haunting (but really was too wholly captivating to put fear of anything into your heart), I thought if she has another song or two like this in her bag we’ll be goners. She did. We were.
This is folk music too, sometimes more English than American probably as you see in the finger-picked, carefully enunciated Beast or the hints of Anne Briggs in the sweetly sad, almost Celtic Merriweather. But unlike Giddens it’s filtered through both a psychedelic lens (hazy, abstract and touched by things such as a saw making an unexpected ghostly trill in Two Bitten Hearts) and a veil of dark country rock (Titus Groan has the solemn trot of a Will Oldham duet).
It means she ends up more in the vein of once-lost figures such as Californian Linda Perhacs or our own too little known wonder Laura Jean, a bit trippy and seemingly fragile but actually quite resistant to the wearing away of time.
Initially issued in 2014, Harding’s album is getting another release – including in quietly winning vinyl – and it’s likely to garner more attention overseas than at home or in Australia. But be warned, if you find yourself walking in on someone playing the old-and-yet-new Small Bones Of Courage you won’t leave the room until its 6 minutes are up.
And then you’ll ask for more.
Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi play: WOMADelaide, March 7; Port Fairy Folk Festival, March 8-9; MONA Nolan Gallery, Hobart, March 11; Melbourne Recital Centre, March 14; Blue Mountains Music Festival, March 15; Metro Theatre, Sydney, March 17.
Aldous Harding plays: Perth Festival, February 28; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, March 4; The Forum, Melbourne, March 6; WOMADelaide, March 7.