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Carolina Chocolate Drops easily weather changes

Somerville Theatre, Somerville, Mass., March 31, 2014

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The personnel in the Carolina Chocolate Drops may have changed drastically over the last few years - two of its three founding members are no longer - but that apparently has not had any impact whatsoever on the group both when it comes to the musical direction and the ability to come through in concert.

Rhiannon Giddens, who plays fiddle and does the largest chunk of the singing, is the lone original CCDer left from when the group formed following the first Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C. in 2005. Dom Flemons left last fall and Justin Robinson in 2011.

No matter, though, in yet another fine show from the band in a near sell out, plying their blend of country, string band music dating as far back as the 1850s, blues, folk and a bit of jazzy sounds.

And you could include Irish music as well as the group started with "Pretty Little Girl with the Blue Dress On," a song they recorded with The Chieftains. Giddens "lamented," "They couldn't be here tonight, so we have to do it on our own." That proved to be no problem for the Drops with a lot of cello from Malcolm Parson.

Credit goes to CCD for putting the songs in context as well. Numerous times during the 93-minute show, Giddens or Jenkins provided a bit of background. For example, before launching into the title track of their "Genuine Negro Jig" CD, Giddens said the song was from an Ohio string band, the Snowden Family. As a result, Giddens said they entitled the song, "Snowden's Jig."

"Sandy Boys," an old fashioned, old time number," according to Giddens followed with her asking the crowd to sing-along. While not heavy lifting for the crowd to sing the two words to the title, the move further ingratiated the band with the crowd. Giddens said the band does "so much community style music, saying it wasn't a case of the band singing at the crowd.

The musical potpourri continued with Giddens doing a fine take on "Country Girl," a song she wrote with her sister about growing up in a rural area outside of Greensboro, N.C. Her fiddle playing powered the song. Giddens later served up her usual lively, soulful rendering of Beyonce's "Hey Ladies," one of the highlights.

The variety endured throughout with a few 1850s minstrel show songs offered. Giddens acknowledged that it could be a bit on the dicey side to play such material given that whites played as blacks with black face, but she made it clear it was more important to acknowledge the music instead of ignoring it.

Jenkins took lead on a chunk of songs with a humorous style (he introduced himself several times), but got serious when he served up his version of Blind Willie Johnson's "Can't Nobody Hide From God."

The band was not afraid to dip into the work identified with their former mates. The band closed with "Read 'Em John," a heavier, traditional bluesy song, which Jenkins tackled. Interestingly, Giddens went on about Flemons, saying the band was building a collective of like-minded musicians, seeming to make it clear that this was one musical umbrella.

One big component - personnel - may have changed for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but what really mattered was that the band has more than weathered the changes, keeping its music fresh, directed and thoroughly enjoyable.