When Rhiannon Giddens stepped onstage at New York’s Town Hall in September 2013 for “Another Day, Another Time,” a concert celebrating the music from the film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” she was known as a founding member of the string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. Two songs later, she was hailed as a revelation. Rightly so.
That evening she performed a thunderous rendition of “Waterboy,” the old work song Odetta once intoned as if delivering a sermon on high. The Town Hall audience erupted in applause and a standing ovation. Clearly there was more to Giddens than we had realized.
“Tomorrow Is My Turn,” her debut solo album released on Tuesday, explores that conceit with a spirited collection of songs both traditional and contemporary. This is Americana in its purest form, where gospel, folk, blues, soul, and Celtic melodies all make sense on the same album when interpreted by a dexterous vocalist and multi-instrumentalist of Giddens’s caliber.
She found a simpatico producer in T Bone Burnett, who had organized the Town Hall show and reportedly approached Giddens backstage with an offer to work with her. Together they keep these songs lean and tasteful, but also adventurous. With electric guitar slinking through many of the arrangements, the music rumbles with down-home fiddle, plucky upright bass, Jay Bellerose on drums, and warm acoustic guitars.
Giddens has a keen ear for hearing fresh melodies and ideas in well-worn songs, particularly folk staples such as “Black Is the Color,” which she transforms into a block-party jam with harmonica and beatbox percussion. She savors the bittersweet country heartache of Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” and turns “She’s Got You,” the Hank Cochran tune Patsy Cline made famous, into a moonstruck prom ballad.
She sprinkles stardust on the title track, which makes a wistful assertion that tomorrow will be better than yesterday and today. Associated with Nina Simone and attributed to Charles Aznavour, the song is Giddens’s gentle approximation of “My Way.”
As artistic statements go, however, it’s harder to discern Giddens’s vision on what’s supposed to be an introduction of sorts, or at the very least a new chapter of her career. She’s a songwriter but performs only one of her own compositions, the graceful “Angel City.”
Obviously her connection to the material runs deep. Her voice, and the way it works with such subtlety in different contexts, is the album’s biggest surprise and centerpiece. We just might have to wait till the next one to learn what Giddens wants to say with it. (Out Tuesday)
Rhiannon Giddens performs at Somerville Theatre on April 18.