Saturday, March 3, 2012

Those roots-working Carolina Chocolate Drops

If I live to be 100, I'll never forget the show I saw last night at Schimmel Center for the Arts (Pace University). And if I do live to be 100, it will be, in part, thanks to the joy I get from the Grammy-winning Black roots music group Carolina Chocolate Drops.

On tour to promote their brand new CD for Nonesuch, Leaving Eden, the Drops offered up two hours of astonishing talent, skill, charisma and generosity. If you've only heard them on recording, you really need to get in the same room with them.

Late last month, the Drops lost their mentor, Joe Thompson, a master of the old-time Black string band tradition of the Carolinas, who died at the age of 93. Co-founder Rhiannon Giddens acknowledged the loss, but it became clear that the Drops have one guiding philosophy: Get on with it. The exuberance of their concert performance was all the tribute Thompson would ever need.

Besides Giddens (fiddles, minstrel banjo, kazoo and vocals), the other remaining Drops veteran is co-founder Dom Flemons (banjo, guitar, bones, jug, harmonica and vocals). Former bandmate Justin Robinson departed for other projects. But there are some newcomers: Leyla McCalla, a wonderful cellist, and Hubby Jenkins (guitar, banjo, mandolin, bones and vocals). Everybody's go-to human beatbox guy Adam Matta also appears on the new CD and joined the Drops for a few numbers last evening.

Flemons and colleagues have focused on a pre-blues melange of sounds from southern Black string band traditions that easily find welcome with today's fans of folk, country and Celtic music. They're also lighting out for blues territory now, too--a place that will be particularly fertile for Giddens. "West End Blues"--an homage to North Carolina blues guitarist/singer Etta Baker, who influenced the likes of Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal--showcased not only the rich fluidity of Giddens' opera-trained soprano but its expressive, affecting power. I think her finger-popping "Country Girl" on Leaving Eden, is going to do for the Drops what her sassy rendition of Blu Cantrell's revenge tune, "Hit 'Em Up Style," did for their Grammy-winning Genuine Negro Jig. Much as I hope the beautiful, self-assured Giddens will be Carolina Chocolate Dropping well into her distinguished 90s, I think some smart movie folks should write her a few acting projects worthy of her talents.

Here she is, in 2010, singing a Scottish song...

...and dueting with her sister, Lalenja Giddens Harrington...

...and leading her original bandmates--Flemons with banjo; Robinson doing beatbox at the mic--at Mass MoCa in 2010:

But then, all the Drops are radiant. You easily see that Flemons, in particular, lives to entertain. This man will find every last way to do it--crack the jokes, flip the guitar, break into dance. He loves performing and is impossible to resist. ("If you give to us, we can give it back," he said, needlessly, to the already-smitten, willing audience. "We can make this happen.") But it's also clear that Flemons' consummate facility with instruments and his eagerness to please get their drive from rigorous research and grounding in tradition. Jenkins, who hails from Brooklyn, is also a find--as fast and flashy-of-hand as any Drop, as personable and bearing a voice of substance and authority.

So, ladies...and gentlemen, if the Drops are headed your way--Hello, New England! You're next!--don't hesitate. Get a ticket. In the meantime, hit 'em up for the new CD.

Carolina Chocolate Drops Web site

Leaving Eden on Nonesuch Records

Carolina Chocolate Drops Facebook page

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