The Carolina Chocolate Drops
Concert Review: The Carolina Chocolate Drops
Theatre of the Living Arts – Philadelphia, PA
Date: Thursday, March 3, 2011
By: Beth Baldino (photos by David Simchock)
My first introduction to The Carolina Chocolate Drops (CCD) was just a happy accident involving this North Carolina-based string band’s appearance at World Café Live in Philadelphia last spring (at the WXPN NonCOMMvention). They put on a phenomenal show, all the more exciting for the fact that I knew very little about them and had absolutely no expectations ahead of time. CCD’s high-energy style and unique approach to blending traditional southern roots music from the early 1900’s with blues, jazz and bluegrass is the kind of act that can really blow you away.
Going into the March 3rd show at the Theatre for the Living Arts (TLA), also in Philadelphia, I thought I knew exactly what I was going to get from the threesome. As the group has gained some prominence over the last year, including a win for Best Traditional Folk Album for their latest CD, Genuine Negro Jig, I have become a full-fledged fan of their songs as well as their mission to revive and preserve the music of the black community from the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
It’s not difficult to love the soulful and emotional voice of Rhiannon Giddens — banjo and fiddle player extraordinaire — and to appreciate how well she is complemented by the multi-talented singer, string and percussion player, Dom Flemons. But, as I watched the stagehands bring out the instruments that night (which eventually totaled a combination of 13 plus a couple of jugs), I also took note of the four chairs they set up, and knew I was in for more surprises.
It turned out that the third member of CCD, Justin Robinson, fiddle-player and human beat-box, recently left the band and has been replaced by vocal performance artist, Adam Matta. The fourth chair was there for yet another new member of the group, multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins, well known to anyone familiar with the New York City Roots scene. Based on the evenings’ performances, I imagine that very soon, fans may forget that the group was ever anything other than a quartet!
The first taste of Adam’s talents came on the Robert Johnson number, “From Four Till Late,” for which his most versatile voice served as the “horns” (and yes, I’d say it was good enough to count that rendition as the 14th instrument on stage that night). The other highlight involving Adam was a Celtic traditional mountain music number done as a duet with Rhiannon, who’s lovely lilting played off his man-made electronica sounds and filled the room with such amazing melody in the most compellingly incongruous way that one could easily forget there were no instruments in use.
That same Robert Johnson song showcased Hubby as well, not only his six-string talent, but for an incredibly deep rich voice that you wouldn’t expect to come out of a guy who hasn’t even passed the quarter-century mark yet. And after the group did the hauntingly beautiful title track from the new album, which they have re-titled “Snowden’s Jig,” in honor of the Ohio family from whom they believe the song may have originated, Hubby treated the crowd to a solo version of Muddy Waters’ “Mean Old Frisco.” Despite expressing nervousness over having such a tough act to follow, Hubby’s performance left no doubt that being the new guy wasn’t going to prevent him from keeping up in any way.
Fortunately, the show also included all the rest I’d come expecting, including, during “Peace Behind the Bridge,” Dom’s masterful usage of two sets of “bones,” a hand instrument something like castanets that produces a clicking sound reminiscent of a tap dancer’s shoes. And, despite the demands of her role as Momma to a toddler daughter who was “helping out” at the merch table that night, Rhiannon’s still working that fiddle and “dancing” in her chair with such vigor that I thought she might levitate right off of it during “Georgia Buck.”
Other highlights from Genuine Negro Jig included the popular number, “Don’t Get Trouble in your Mind,” which Dom organized as a sing-along with a most enthusiastic audience. But the ultimate moment for me personally was seeing CCD perform their version of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” the same number they had me humming for weeks after the last show. It was clear from the crowd’s reaction at the TLA that they were similarly affected by the way Rhiannon’s voice manages to contain and convey all the raging emotion of wronged women everywhere in this tune about relationship revenge. This was just one of the numbers that has you wishing everyone could attend a CCD show, because while their recorded work is wonderful, the energy of their live performances seem to take the music to an entirely different level and really must be seen to be fully appreciated.
I can’t wait to find out what surprises CCD has in store for the next show that I’m lucky enough to attend, but I have no doubt that they will continue to thrill, inspire and earn the respect of music fans (and musical historians) everywhere for their dedication to their genre and consummate skill as multi-talented performance artists.
More photos by David Simchock: http://bit.ly/gEcoOy