Words by Sarah Thatcher. Photos by Alex Kreutzer.
Seeing the Carolina Chocolate Drops is like taking a “History of Music” course – only better. This quartet covers everything from the Civil War to the economic woes of modern times, and they leave you feeling well-versed in the origins of American music. Right from the outset the band established everyone in the room as a community sharing the experience of this music. This brought a special feeling to the evening at the Sellersville Theatre, a historic venue that was the perfect setting for the band. Their stories, history lessons and charm worked a magic on us.
The first thing you notice at a Carolina Chocolate Drops show is the almost constant parade of instruments from song to song, proving that these four are consummate, well-trained musicians, passionate about sharing their brand of old-timey blues and jazz (with a country twist!) spun for a modern audience. Along with the usual guitar, mandolin, cello and fiddle we were introduced to the minstrel-style banjo and the rhythm bones. Rhiannon Giddens’ (vocals, violin, banjo) overview of the instrument left the mostly white, middle-aged audience hushed as she explained the evolution of the banjo from its use almost exclusively by black musicians to its popularization by entertainers in black face. She noted the silence in the room at the mention of this and stated the importance of opening a dialogue about this period in American entertainment history. Giddens reminded us that some beautiful music comes out of this time as it marks one of the first times blacks and whites were able to interact.
The history lesson continued when Dom Flemons (vocals, guitar, banjo, drums, bones) introduced the audience to the rhythm bones, which he and Hubby Jenkins (guitar, mandolin, banjo) played in a duelling bones number. Dom even pointed out that the son of the late creator of the patented “Rhythm Bones,” Joe Birl, was in the audience. He went on to tell the story of how he first met Joe, reinforcing the idea that this band is on a mission; they are not only on the road to entertain, but to curate the history of American music and expose it at the root.
In addition to the variety of instruments on the stage, the Carolina Chocolate Drops also performs in a variety of languages from scat to Creole to Gaelic. Guest artist Leyla McCalla (cello, guitar, banjo) dipped into her Haitian heritage to perform Rose-Marie, sung in Creole. Rhiannon further demonstrated the group’s versatility when she sang acapella in Gaelic. It’s pretty clear early on in the first set that you should expect the unexpected from the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Talented musicians, historians, entertainers; however you want to describe them, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are unlike any other group performing today. Their songwriting is infused with the experiences of generations. This is a band that knows where they come from and will be be blazing new trails well into the future.