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Carolina Chocolate Drops move beyond being unique

Somerville Theatre, Somerville, Mass., October 4, 2008

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The Carolina Chocolate Drops aren't much like anyone else out there today. First off, their bedrock is old time string music. A few bands have come and gone doing that style, but there are few proponents of the acoustic music style today. Second, the trio is all black, also very unique today. Third, they're pretty much on their own, being on a small North Carolina label and managed by the guy who developed the Avett Brothers.

But somehow they must be doing something right. Last time in the Boston area in May, they opened for Crooked Still in about a 700-seat theatre. On this night, they played a 900-seat movie house as the only act on the bill and did a good job in filling it up. And the crowd seemed to enjoy what they were hearing because they were often clapping rhythmically or singing along.

Ultimately, of course, the music determines whether this is more than an interesting novelty act or in for the long haul. And while their last CD, "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind," was a good effort, their live act is better. The CD tends to hew closer to old time music with a lot of strings and not quite enough diversity, but live, they threw jazz and blues into the mix as well, changing up the sound enough with different styles and singers to always keep fans tuned in.

Playing 2 45-minute sets plus an encore, the Drops proved to be an engaging trio. By far, the strongest singer is the lone female, Rhiannon Giddens. She has a very full sounding, pleasing voice whether on the bluesy Two Time Losin' or Blue Cantrell's 2001 smash "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops). There is a lot of depth to her vocals. Giddens has other skills as well - a good banjo player along with stepping out on stage to take her turn dancing, doing the Charleston on one number and lively movements on Salty Dog. Giddens is a real joy to watch

But all three Drops take leads. Dom Fleming contributes well on vocals as well, though nowhere near as stirring as his band mate. Fleming, an Arizona native, met the others about three years ago at a black banjo festival in Boone, N.C. With Joe Thompson, an 89-year-old black musician as a touchstone, the Carolina Chocolate Drops developed their style mainly playing covers of very ancient songs. Fleming also plays the National Guitar most of the time (though all Drops are versatile and trade instruments). He's the most outgoing of the Drops, dressed nattily in a chapeau and suspenders. However, he also was guilty of the low point of the night, a solo reading of Looks Like Another Lonely Moon, which went on too long to the point of being on the self-indulgent side. But that was the night's lone misstep. He more than made up for it during the second set with Nobody's Fault But Mine, a Blind Willie Johnson song from "The Greater Debaters" movie soundtrack.

Justin Robinson was the least distinctive of the three when it came to vocals, although his best reading was also his last - the very fine Saddlewood Mountain with a lot of help from the crowd on the chorus. He did a good job on fiddle along with playing the jug. Fleming played the latter "instrument" as well with each blowing into it to make it sound like a bass. Interesting, different, visually worthwhile and musically it works.

The Drops also made the music more accessible by giving the background behind many of the songs with some songs coming back from black string bands of another era.

Unique only goes so far in music because after awhile the novelty aspect would wear off. But different need not be confused with only being unique. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are different, singular and really good.