Though paired as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s fall World Music series, Rhiannon Giddens and M. Ward would have been better listed as two of the more exemplary representatives of American music. Each performing with their respective bands, and without the symphony, the co-headliners spanned a variety of time-periods and idioms. From 18th century African-American fables to driving ‘50s rockabilly, the twin-billed appearance drew a winding line of historical influences and homages between Giddens’ rich, yet turbulent southeast roots and Ward’s placid Pacific Northwest.
First, backed by her multi-instrumental quartet, the barefooted Giddens on banjo opened the evening with “Spanish Mary,” a song from The New Basement Tapes that she co-wrote with Bob Dylan- “about 50 years ago,” she joked. With a ringing vibrato and cascading range, not to mention her equally light and conscientious banter between songs, Giddens is a Tony award waiting to happen, provided she found a show that embodied all of what she’s capable. As a kind of gypsy sophisticate she moves and grooves to her band, itself a cross-hatch of players from New York City to the Louisiana bayou, then commandeers the ensemble and audience with her arresting, penetrating, and powerful vocals and deft instrumental acumen, even finding the right time to needle guitarist Hubby Jenkins about his birthday. Alternating between banjo and fiddle, the singer touchingly covered a 1965 Pops Staples civil rights message (“Freedom Highway”) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s 1940s gospel (“Up Above My Head”), but it was late in her hour-plus set in a show-stopping tribute to folk blues queen Odetta on “Waterboy” that the house rose in an emotional standing ovation.
By contrast, Ward and his trio were far less extroverted, though no less affecting. With just his guitarist, Mike Coykendall, the neo-folk troubadour started with a hushed duo version of “Lullaby + Exile” before being joined by his bopping rhythm section for a stinging “Poison Cup.” Ward, too, moved from instrument to instrument, sometimes on acoustic guitar for fingerpicked flourishes or on electric and its reverberating twang. Midway through, he took a seat at the upright piano for a solo run, precluding alt-outsider Daniel Johnston’s “Story of an Artist,” as he suggested a need for artists more than ever in today’s world. With his coarse yet comforting tone, Ward gave a wonderfully sweet reading of “Chinese Translation” that transitioned out of a second-half of rambles “Fuel for Fire” and “One Hundred Million Years” and into the tumbling “Never Had Nobody Like You.” Called from the audience to join him, singer Victoria Williams and Ward closed on a sentimental “Moon River.”
Most of the year, Walt Disney Hall echoes with the classical music gravitas of its resident philharmonic. Humbled, both Giddens and Ward offered several compliments to the room during their performances. By the time they were finished, it was Disney Hall that felt richer, stronger, for the experience and this pair’s vivid and valuable contributions to the living history of American music.