Carolina Chocolate Drops Provide a Musical History

April 5th, 2013

Carolina Chocolate Drops – The Bowery Ballroom – April 4, 2013

Sure, it’s been a while, but I don’t remember history class being this much fun. And I know there wasn’t as much dancing, clapping and singing along as there was last night at the Carolina Chocolate Drops show at The Bowery Ballroom. Even so, their set was a history lesson as the quartet played music from the past two centuries. The syllabus reached into all corners of the old canon—blues, gospel, country, jazz and jug band—with Dom Flemons explaining at the start that the best way to help those who made the songs to “live forever” was to keep playing the music. From the first notes of the opener, “Black Annie,” the classroom became a full-fledged hootenanny with the four-piece working a variety of guitars, fiddles, cellos, “the bones,” pan flutes and banjos—oh, the banjos! Songs like “Run Mountain,” “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind” and the original “Country Girl” featured banjos of every stripe and vintage, each Drop taking at least one song on a banjo, including a “minstrel banjo,” which looked to be halfway to a guitar.

Yes, there were some lessons to be learned, some history along the way—the history of the music, the people who made it and the circumstances in which they made it. The show was a conversation: the musicians bantering together onstage, their instruments and voices speaking to each other through the music, the two-way interactions with the audience and the songs ultimately serving as a conversation with the past. The highlight for me was when Chocolate Drop wonder woman Rhiannon Giddens played a song solo on that minstrel banjo, an original piece that took a slice of Civil War oral history—a slave narrative between “Julie” and her mistress—and put it to song. With the banjo providing a mournful resonance, Giddens provoked goose bumps at several moments throughout her tale. Another great moment was in “Bug Creek Girl” when the band’s two newest members, Leyla McCalla on cello and Hubby Jenkins on (what else?) banjo, played their instruments into a wonderful back-and-forth.

The Chocolate Drops cast a wide net, from the fun “Bye-Bye Policeman,” which featured Flemons’ voice and playing, to the sing-, clap- and dance-along “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad,” to the Scottish “mouth tune” sung to awe-inspiring perfection by Giddens, and to the Johnny Cash cover, “Jackson,” it seemed there was no folk stone left unturned. It seemed they could go on forever. My experience with history class was that when the bell rang, the students were already one foot out the door, but when that time came last night, the audience seemed ready to literally bar the doors to force the band to play all night. But with effusive thanks, another quick lesson, an explanation that there were kids in the green room who needed to be put to bed, plus a “Read ’Em, John” encore, any more dancing and singing would have to be left for homework. —A. Stein