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Rhiannon Giddens' 'Freedom Highway' offers rootsy relevance

Associated Press logo Associated Press 2/22/2017 By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press

Rhiannon Giddens, "Freedom Highway" (Nonesuch)

Singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens mines the pain and beauty of American social and musical history on "Freedom Highway," a rich tapestry with threads of blues, folk, gospel, soul, country and jazz.

Giddens — a founding member of old-timey innovators the Carolina Chocolate Drops — infuses musical tradition with modern urgency, showing how the struggles that fueled the blues still resonate today.

The voices of slaves and survivors, resilient African Americans and women wrenched from their children run through these 12 songs, from the blues-bluegrass slave ballad "At the Purchaser's Option" to the rap-funk track "Better Get It Right the First Time," a lament for lives lost at the hands of the police.

With multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell among the musicians complementing Giddens' banjo-playing, the album ranges from the folky Americana of "We Could Fly" to the swooning New Orleans jazz of "Hey Bebe," which features trumpet from the aptly named Alphonso Horne.

Alongside Giddens' own compositions are powerful covers of two civil rights anthems: a stately, piano-backed rendition of Richard Farina's "Birmingham Sunday" and a rousing take on Pops Staples' "Freedom Highway."

Giddens' second solo album is rootsy and relevant, delivered with crystal-clear emotion and understated musical skill.

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