Music / Concert Review: AMERICAN RAILROAD (Silkroad Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens; U.S. Tour)

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by William C. on November 14, 2023

in Concerts / Events,Music,Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional,Tours


In this first program post-Yo-Yo Ma artistic directorship, the American Railroad national tour by Silkroad Ensemble presents an evening of newly composed and arranged music with a slew of fresh faces joining the illustrious ensemble. Under the direction of banjoist, fiddle player, vocalist and multi-Grammy winner Rhiannon Giddens, the ensemble features a cast of multiethnic instrumentalists bringing with them unique sounds and performativity.

The context for American Railroad is recognition of the minorities who built the U.S.’s Transcontinental Railroad. The ensemble’s artistic statement states: “American Railroad seeks to right past wrongs by highlighting untold stories and amplifying unheard voices from these communities, painting a more accurate picture of the global diasporic origin of the American Empire.” This new vision recognizing the contribution of immigrants, African Americans and indigenous people is at first glance a rather innovative way of approaching the ethos of the ensemble. Founded by Yo-Yo Ma to push the boundaries of music-making with a globalist vision, Giddens’ vision promised to be fresh and timely. In the time of racial justice and Black Lives Matter, critical issues explored through pluralistic music creation makes perfect sense.

Silkroad Ensemble

I wish I can report that the ensemble has continued the tradition of exciting programming with thrilling performances in addition to honoring their new vision — but this is not that. Overall the programing was bland at best and the ensemble felt very disjointed. The expression range is limited and actually tied down under the established thesis. I question if the new direction may be more nativist and cloistered then fresh or “forward facing.” My overall knee-jerk response last Sunday November 12 at The Soraya was one of claustrophobia from a general stiffness in both presentation and performance. The entire concert misses the same kinetic connection, playfulness and joy that was the iconic trademark of the Silkroad Ensemble.

The opening number “Swannanoa Tunnel / Canoe Song” featured Pura Fé on conch, sharing vocals with Giddens. The duo didn’t have a comfortable groove together. In fact, the contrasting sense of rhythm left me rather uneasy. Fè went on improvising atop of a bed of pre-recorded voices that felt out of place. Partially due to bad mixing, the long and uninspiring opening did little to set the program’s beautiful intention, as the execution was clunky and felt amateurish.

“Far Down Far” is a two-part jig arranged by Silkroad member, Maeve Gilchrist, which had Giddens offering improvisational singing with her incredibly beautiful voice. Beginning with a drone on her fiddle, she was accompanied by Sandeep Das on the tabla. There was nothing technically wrong with the performances, but it was nothing worth talking about. Giddens is an amazing fiddler, yet not exciting to watch. And because she chose to remain seated, it felt like a wasted opportunity to get the audience really pumped by her showmanship.

Rhiannon Giddens

Das launched into a tabla solo, “Rela,” that started with a rather steady pulse. Having seen his legendary performances multiple times, it was odd that something was held back. It could have been an off-night, but his polyrhythms were not as sharp or crisp as normal. There seemed to be a reliance on his well-established playing of the past; here, the solo felt safe.

Continuing the shapeless first half, we had “Wíhaŋblapi Mázačhaŋku” (“Railroad Dreams”), a new visual score by Oglala Lakota composer Kite (instead of lines and dots on a musical stave, visual scores use all sorts of different images and symbols to tell the performer what to play). It mystified me as to its inclusion, at least in before intermission when we are still getting on board with the program. What could have been an auditory feast sounded clunky and Dadaesque, meaning there seemed to be no logic, reason, and aestheticism to the work.

Silkroad Ensemble

For her melancholic “Rainy Day,” Wu Man — always steadily musical and versatile — is game for anything being thrown at her. She was not only dependable but entertaining to watch as she thrashed on her pipa, a plucked Chinese instrument. Finishing the first act, guest artist Niwel Tsumbu, also helped to shape the ensemble in a joyful way with his “Milimo” (a Lingala word for “spirits”). The guitarist’s dexterity and tone were both superb and fun to hear. Mr. Tsumbu deserved a bigger role in the program.

In the second half, percussionist Haruka Fujii’s arrangement of ‘Temping Song” was the only standout piece of the night. The arrangement, the melody of which is based on railroad worker’s song released on Columbia Records Japan in 1963, was filled with gripping string sounds and exciting grooves that helped to elevate the evening but for a moment. Kaoru Watanabe’s powerful taiko solo, Fugaku Sanju Rokkei,” was incredible to watch. His years of deep connection to the wadaiko (Japanese drum) practice and tradition was deeply felt. His incredible dexterity and versatility continues to push this traditional performance art forward.

Silkroad Ensemble

The concert could have done with some verbal communication from the musicians, adding a little context to the stories behind the pieces to aid in locating the work’s journey. Instead, the evening generally felt more like an aimless trek that was, frankly, a little cold and distant. The kind of personal approach that has always been a hallmark of Silkroad went missing.

The “Globalization” vision that came out of the early 2000s has become tiresome (and here, uninspiring). In this post-Trump era, this nativist vision feels a little too stiff and unthoughtful, like a Pavlovian response. Is it time to take a break and let a new identity emerge? That’s unlikely to happen soon, given that American Railroad is a multiyear initiative. I can’t wait for Silkroad to relaunch with more clarity of vision, intention and presentation. Because, ultimately, plurality of voices and expressions should not feel like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.

photos of Silkroad Ensemble November 12, 2023 at The Soraya
by Luis Luque, Luque Photography

American Railroad
Silkroad Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens
reviewed on Sunday November 12, 2023 at The Soraya
tour continues through November 18, 2023; for dates and cities, visit Silkroad
a second tour is slated for fall 2024,
with dates up and down the East Coast and in the Midwest

American Railroad artists:

Rhiannon Giddens, banjo/vocals
Mazz Swift, violin/vocals
Wu Man, pipa
Sandeep Das, tabla
Haruka Fujii, percussion
Shawn Conley, bass
Karen Ouzounian, cello/vocals
Kaoru Watanabe, Japanese flutes/percussion
Michi Wiancko, violin
Francesco Turrisi*, frame drums/accordion
Niwel Tsumbu*, guitar
Pura Fé Crescioni*, lap-steel guitar/vocals
Yazhi Guo*, suona
*Guest artist
Projections by Camilla Tassi

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Matthew Eisen November 18, 2023 at 8:50 am

Excellent review! We saw the show in San Diego and were very disappointed. No context for all the work and thought that went into this show (you had to read the program to understand and appreciate the history and meaning!).

The visuals on the large screen were perfunctory at best, and lazy and repetitive at worst. And with no interaction with the audience at all, this truly felt like the musicians on stage were rehearsing for themselves.

The ensemble needs to take a hard look at how the AUDIENCE is experiencing what is being presented (or not presented) on stage, and do some serious work to achieve what they want this piece to express.


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