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Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell at Irish Arts Center, February 9-11
(Published: January 22, 2018)


"A peerless and powerful voice in roots music."-Pitchfork on Rhiannon Giddens

"God gave this one an overdose of talent."-American folk singer, songwriter, musician, and activist Joan Baez on Dirk Powell

Irish Arts Center presents Masters in Collaboration XII: Rhiannon Giddens Meets Dirk Powell (February 9-11), the next chapter in a series that, since its launch in 2008, has consistently served as a risk-rewarding incubator and platform for the merging of musical talents outside the dynamics of the commercial marketplace. Last season, the collaboration between Cassandra Wilson and Liam Ó Maonlaí fostered at IAC blossomed into an international tour to Dublin, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, with an ensemble of top jazz, folk and Irish musicians from both sides of the Atlantic, in a performance where their "innate musicality allowed their distinct vocabularies to speak as one" (Chicago Tribune).

Now, IAC welcomes 2017 MacArthur Genius Fellowship recipient Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell, two of their generation's most dynamic and virtuosic artists, to deepen their collaboration through a residency that will explore new material they are preparing for a musical theater project. This work delves into the culture of Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, when the nascent empowerment of black leaders led white supremacists to enact a massacre. Their time at IAC will culminate in three public performances on February 9, 10, and 11 at 8pm. As part of the series, audiences will also have a unique opportunity to peer into the creative process of the performers with an exclusive midweek conversation, February 7.

American music has at its core an affirmative and uniting language that gives a foundational rhythm to our lives and resonates profoundly around the globe. Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell are masters of this language. With roots in North Carolina and Kentucky, respectively, their musical heritage springs from places where the mix is particularly potent, but both have, through faith in the strength of those roots, reached far and wide in their search for self-expression. Giddens brought African-American string band traditions a new and beautiful vitality through The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and has launched a versatile solo career that confirms her status as a major American artist for this day and age. Powell has championed the Appalachian music of his grandfather and the Cajun/Creole sounds of his Louisiana family since his teenage years, becoming a central figure in the revitalization of both traditions, while recording and performing with artists like Eric Clapton and Joan Baez.

To quote producer T Bone Burnett, with whom both have worked closely, Giddens is "next in a long line of singers that include Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, and Rosetta Tharpe," while he said of Powell, "He's got great subtlety, tremendous feel, and is modern in the best sense of the word." That modernity, which both exhibit, could seem paradoxical for artists committed, in part, to being a bridge to younger audiences and musicians from older tradition bearers, but both are deeply aware that, in modern times, we choose the cultures that sustain us. And in making that choice, we commit not to recreating but to creating. In Giddens and Powell, that means not only honoring the core language of traditions, but speaking from the heart today, about things like social justice and the need for compassion and equality in all forms. Giddens' and Powell's artistic commitment has not gone unrecognized: both artists have Grammy wins in several contexts, in categories ranging from Folk to Alternative Rock to Blues to Country. But awards don't equate to success for them; having the time and means to continue exploring musically, historically, and socially, with unmitigated compassion, does.

Giddens' most recent album, 2017's Freedom Highway, displayed her knack for traversing brutal American histories with just as much nuance and captivating emotion as her career-spanning traversal of American musical traditions. Pitchfork wrote that the roots album's "beauty and gravitas come from how Giddens collapses the last two centuries of American history, juxtaposing songs about antebellum slave plantations with 1960's Civil Rights anthems and narratives of 21st-century state violence." NPR, naming it one of the Best Albums of the Year, wrote that "Giddens demands that listeners take a knee, but that they also dance-because dancing revives the deepest memories and shows us how to step in new directions, off the track and into a future unbound."

Now, Giddens' work-in-development with Powell explores the forgotten moment in American history where local black leaders in Wilmington, NC were coming into power in a growingly biracial or "Fusionist" local Republican party - until white supremacist Democrats staged a coup and forced them from power, while a 2000-person, violent mob burned the building hosting the state's one black-run newspaper to the ground, then broke out into murderous chaos, killing a number of black civilians. This moment is often brushed aside as a "race riot" as opposed to a racist massacre. As Giddens told Huffington Post, "Listening to one song can highlight an enormous piece of history emotionally. [...] For me the idea of...these people who lived in this time and went through that ― are a way into this history...[And] musically-speaking, there a lot of amazing things that were going on then ― before genres, before the race records and hillbilly records and country and soul. Music was much more of a crossing-line kind of thing. Music between Reconstruction and the turn of the century is extremely important and undervalued and under-reported on, because there was no recording industry back then. But there are other ways to recreate and to explore what's going on during that time period."

Whether with banjos and fiddles, grand pianos framing deeply soulful vocals, or Creole accordions laying down bayou grooves beneath melodies sung in French, the duo's music may in moments take a path through the mind, or perhaps through dancing feet.... but in the end, they are out to reach hearts, and in each other have found a unique partnership in which to do so. Their musical range touches on all of what makes American music the resonant force that it is, including fearless original songs written with the conviction to open and heal the wounds of racism and other forms of prejudice that continue to haunt us. They could be seen as possessing a rare multilingualism, but are, in the end, speaking one highly evolved American language; in their performances, audiences are included in a conversation that is spirited, emotional, masterful, and, in the end, transformational.

Audiences can experience the results of their collaborative creative process in performances on February 9, 10, and 11 at 8pm at Irish Arts Center (553 West 51st Street). General tickets are $65 and tickets for members are $52, and can be purchased-starting January 9 for members and January 16 for non-members-at 866-811-4111 or info@irishartscenter.org. The conversation on February 7 takes place at 7pm; it is free, though reservations are encouraged.

About Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens is one of the most astonishing talents of the modern era. A co-founder of the Grammy-winning traditional string band Carolina Chocolate Drops and an accomplished solo artist-including the acclaimed recordings Tomorrow is My Turn and most recent Freedom Highway- her immense gifts as a singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, arranger, dancer, and actor are brilliantly matched by the powerful artistic and social narrative she brings to her work. She is the recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, the only woman and person of color to win the prize in its history, and was recently awarded a 2017 MacArthur Genius Fellowship.

The musical vision of Giddens' Nonesuch solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn, incorporates gospel, jazz, blues, and country, plus a hint of proto-rock and roll, and Giddens displays an emotional range to match her dazzling vocal prowess throughout. Her second solo album, Freedom Highway, while a tremendous step forward for her as an artist and songwriter, functions on a higher level, acting as a conduit that links present and the past, and insists like William Faulkner did six decades earlier, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Through the sometimes jagged prism of 12 songs, many of which were inspired by America's scarred history, Giddens movingly inhabits the characters in the songs-slaves, mothers, young black men in America, or the marchers in Selma, Alabama back in 1965--unfurling their pain and struggles.

Since Giddens' earliest days with Carolina Chocolate Drops, the past has beat inside her like a second heart. Over their three albums and one EP, the Chocolate Drops did what they could both to entertain and school listeners about the important part black musicians played in the history of the American string band. On Freedom Highway, she goes further, acting as historian, prophetess, and medium, realizing that the entirety of her career has been in service of those who could not speak for themselves.

About Dirk Powell

Dirk Powell has expanded on the deeply rooted sounds of his Appalachian heritage to become one of the preeminent traditional American musicians of his generation. In addition to his widely influential solo recordings, he has recorded and performed with artists such as Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm, Jack White, Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne. His ability to unite the essence of traditional culture with modern sensibilities has led to work with many of today's greatest film directors as well, including Ang Lee, Anthony Minghella, Spike Lee, Victor Nuñez and Steve James. He was a founding member of the important Cajun group Balfa Toujours and has been a regularly featured artist in the award-winning BBC series The Transatlantic Sessions. In addition to performing under his own name in a wide variety of settings, Powell also tours regularly with Joan Baez, playing 7 instruments during each performance.

Powell's soulful and emotionally fearless music has carried him to a unique place in today's musical landscape. His combination of rural roots and formal training make him a unique force in the world of music and film. His extensive work with Anthony Minghella on the Academy Award-winning film Cold Mountain included on-set consulting, arranging traditional and original music for the screen, performing the banjo parts of a central character, and acting. He has worked with several other world-renowned directors, such as Ang Lee on Ride With the Devil, Spike Lee on Bamboozled, and Victor Nuñez on Coastlines. Dirk has also composed score for several award-winning documentary and dramatic films, including Stranger With a Camera, Stevie, and Thoughts in the Presence of Fear. His end credit composition for In the Electric Mist has received wide acclaim.

Powell's television credits include two appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, The Today Show, and the American Masters series on PBS. He has appeared on the radio programs All Things Considered, World Café, Weekend Edition, A Prairie Home Companion, E-Town, Mountain Stage, and many others, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Through his recordings with Loretta Lynn, Irma Thomas, Tim O'Brien, and the Raconteurs, Powell was a featured performer on projects winning Grammy awards four years in a row in four different categories. The recording studio he designed and operates, The Cypress House, counts Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, James McMurtry, and others among its clients. Ronstadt's project Adieu False Heart was nominated for a Grammy not only in the folk category but also in the non-classical engineering category - a tribute, in part, to Powell's acoustic design of the space. Dirk's original songs have been performed and recorded by a wide variety of artists and his production skills have shaped many powerful recordings over the last twenty years. Powell is a recognized force within the international musical scene. His bonds with Louisiana and with the mountains of Kentucky are unmistakable - but so is his far-reaching vision and ability to translate the essence of tradition to audiences who need the timeless and sustaining messages that tradition brings.

About Irish Arts Center

Irish Arts Center, founded in 1972 and based in Hell's Kitchen, New York City, is a national and international home for artists and audiences of all backgrounds who share a passion for the evolving arts and culture of contemporary Ireland and Irish America. We present, develop, promote, tour, and distribute work from established and emerging artists and cultural practitioners, providing audiences with emotionally and intellectually transporting experiences-the results of innovation, collaboration, and the authentic celebration of our common humanity.

Steeped in grassroots traditions, with a commitment to inclusion that dates back to our founding, we provide education programs and access to the arts for people of all ages and ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, and an international home for the Irish community to come together and engage with a dynamic global diaspora.

We keep eclecticism firmly in mind, showcasing a variety of cross-disciplinary artists across the spectrum of tradition and innovation. Our 2018 Winter/Spring season includes multifaceted events like ThisIsPopBaby's Riot, blending wild theater, circus, spoken word, raucous festivity and biting politics; the ongoing Muldoon's Picnic series, gathering participants from across the arts and letters (from actress Maggie Gyllenhaal to author Gary Shteyngart to American Irish punk band The Prodigals); concerts by "atmos-folk" band Saint Sister, who blend electronica with Celtic harp and soulful vocal harmonies; and more. Through our acclaimed Masters in Collaboration residency/performance series, conceived in 2007, we bring together musicians in exhilarating artistic and cultural exchanges rife with innovative potential. Previous collaborators have included Cassandra Wilson and Liam Ó Maonlaí; Nic Gareiss and Colin Dunne; Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Cleek Shrey; Dana Lyn and Louis de Paor;Iarla Ó Lionáird and Ivan Goff; Joanie Madden and Seamus Begley; Bill Whelan and Athena Tergis; Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill and Gregory Harrington; Karan Casey and Aoife O'Donovan; and Sarah Siskind and Paul Brady, among others.

In 2018, we will break ground on a landmark new permanent home, including a state of the art contemporary, flexible performance and arts space for the presentation and development of work across a range of disciplines; a second, intimate performance space-the renovated historic Irish Arts Center theatre-optimized for the most intimate live music and conversation, recordings, master classes and special events; classrooms and studio spaces for community education programs in Irish music, dance, language, history, and the humanities; technology to stream and distribute the Irish Arts Center experience on the digital platform; a spacious and vibrant avenue-facing café lobby that will be a hospitable hub for conversation and interaction between artists and audiences; and a beautiful new courtyard entrance on 51st Street where the historic Irish Arts Center building and the new facility meet.

More Information: http://irishartscenter.org/event/masters-in-collaboration-xii-rhiannon-giddens-meets-dirk-powell

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