Lamps trimmed and burning

by Jordan Green

Rhiannon Giddens, one-third of the world-famous African-American string band known as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is wrapping up a rare solo set at the Green Burro in Greensboro on a recent Thursday. Her sister, Lalenja Harrington, is onstage with her, and Giddens pays homage to Joe Thompson, an 89-year-old fiddler from Mebane, who she reckons represents the last living link of that old tradition.

For the final song of her set, Giddens and Harrington are going to do a gospel song they learned from a record. It’s called “Oil In My Vessel.” Harrington sings the lead and Giddens colors the corners of the song’s phrases with her honeyed voice. Singing a cappella, deep wounds carried across generations well up in their words, but as with all gospel music worthy of the name, catharsis transports the song to a place of jubilation and blessed assurance.

“You better be ready when the bridegroom comes,” Harrington begins.

Both sisters beam, and the audience claps and sings along.

Harrington leans into the lyric and opens up her lungs wide.

“My sister has oil in her vessel,” she sings, “has her lamp trimmed and burning; she is ready when the bridegroom comes.”

Giddens cocks her head and smiles a little proudly.

The set concludes, and Sean Coon — whose Dot Matrix Project is wrapping a multi-media collaboration around this concert with a crew that includes a sound engineer, along with multiple videographers and still photographers — briefly appears in front of the microphone and says a few words of thanks.

Then an exultant Laurelyn Dossett, Giddens’ friend and sometime collaborator, stands before the audience and announces, “This is the last time we’re gonna have Rhiannon in her hometown. She’s going to return to Ireland. She does have a bridegroom.”

Giddens is married, in fact. For the past couple weeks, she’s been staying in a garage apartment at the home of Dossett and her husband, Justin Catanoso. Dossett and Catanoso own a little stake in the modest share of fame that the Triad apportions: Dossett as part of the folk trio Polecat Creek and songwriter for three Triad Stage productions, and Catanoso as executive editor of The Business Journal and author of My Cousin the Saint: A Search for Faith, Family and Miracles. Both have made cameo appearances on the National Public Radio affiliate in Chapel Hill, WUNC FM, respectively for music and journalism.

But neither has experienced the meteoric and improbable success that has catapulted Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops from their carefully tended Piedmont roots. Even though Giddens grew up in Julian and Greensboro, her band was never really hooked into the parochial bar-band scene in the Gate City. Playing fiddles, banjos, jugs and bones they zoomed right past the local scene with a 2007 CD review in Rolling Stone, soundtrack work for The Great Debaters, tours of the British Isles and Continental Europe in early 2008, and two appearances on the Grand Ole Opry in the past six months.

Giddens is booked with Dossett for two concerts in support of the Democratic presidential ticket in the next week. Then four days after Election Day, Giddens and her band depart for a short tour of England before she reunites with her husband in Ireland. She hopes to return with him to North Carolina early next year.

Dossett can hardly contain herself.

“Rhiannon, she’s going to have a baby,” her friend burbles from the stage. “Can I tell everybody? They’re going to find out anyway.” She rubs her hands together.

Later, Giddens and Harrington recline on a couch around the corner of the bar at the Green Burro, a semi-private area to the side of the stage that affords them a modicum of comfort. Dossett blazes through her set, with help from Scott Manring, a banjo picker and guitarist with a mop of white hair that looks like a cold, flaming halo. Performing without her band, the breadth of Dossett’s artistry and her searching intellect are plainly revealed. At first blush, it’s easy enough to pigeonhole her music as genteel old-time, but a closer listen distinguishes pensive folk ballads, searing gut-level blues and haunted spirituals. No less an eminence of Americana music than Levon Helm has covered Dossett’s song, “Anna Lee,” and made it his own with his creaky, heart-worn voice.

Just now, Dossett and Manring are performing a bleak and foreboding song called “Surry County’s Burning” that chronicles a particularly dry October in 2000.

“So, Rhiannon,” Dossett says afterwards, “come on up.” Giddens shuffles toward the stage in blue jeans and a formless red print dress, and Dossett cracks, “Look at her, looking like she doesn’t know how to sing.”

“Can we dedicate this one?” Giddens asks. “I’m going to dedicate this one to my hubby.”

“Now, I’m going to cry, and it’s going to be so messy,” Dossett says.

They join voices in the Polecat Creek song “That I Should Know Your Face.”

“That I should know your face, my love,” goes the first line, “like sorrow knows the mourning dove.”

Dossett reaches for Giddens’ hand, and as their voices intertwine, and the significance of the song evolves from Giddens’ yearning for her true love to Dossett’s mournful anticipation of her friend’s impending departure.

“That I should hold you to my breast,” they sing in the final line. “Come back to me is my request.”

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