Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
arly on during the Carolina Chocolate Drops show, Rihannon Giddens asked the packed house how may of them were at a CCD for the first time. Based on the very large number of hands that punctuated the air, one might have thought the band would have had their work cut out for them.
If they did, however, they certainly didn't show it, but, no matter, because the modern day black string band, which touches upon blues and rootsy sounds, quite easily won over the masses at the World Music/Crash Arts gig. Bottom line - the Caroline Chocolate Drops were at the top of their game.
The sound of the Carolina Chocolate Drops has changed a bit over time. At one time, CCD hewed very strongly to a string band sound, acoustic (they still are), fast and sounding from a different era, sort of a pre-cursor to bluegrass music. Last year, they toured with a beat boxer, bringing a funkier element to the proceedings. This year, they tour with cellist Leyla McCalla, who often picked at her instrument, instead of using a bow, adding warm, rich tones.
The Drops also strayed away from the countryish old time countryish vibe to incorporate far more of a blues sound. That was most underscored by the singing of Hubby Jenkins. Jigs and ballads remain part of the mix as well.
The true star of the band was Giddens. She was a captivating performer, singing great with such songs as perhaps the band's best known song, a cover of Blu Cantrell's Hit 'Em Up Style and Country Girl from "Leaving Eden," released just this week on Nonesuch. She also offered a lot of strong fiddle and changed it by bringing a type of banjo dating back to the 1830's, which had fuller sound than the modern banjo.
Flemons was no slouch because he also was a strong singer with a lot of personality. His take of the bluesy Red 'Em John from the new disc was top shelf. The band relied heavily on very strong "Leaving Even," playing about 10 songs during the 100-minute show.
For those who were unfamiliar with the music, the Drops provided a musical lesson time and again. Giddens, Jenkins and Clemons were informational as opposed to being pedantic. In fact, their constant intros to the songs were most welcome in giving credit where credit was due to their creators (very rarely do the Drops write their own material).
But this was not a boring night in the classroom. Besides the singing and playing, the Drops added such touches as Giddens dancing around (usually she clogs, which is tremendous fun, but she performed without any shoes) and Clemons flipping his acoustic guitar over and over while playing it or Jenkins playing his cheeks with his hands. None of this seemed gimmicky or out of place, only making the band even more accessible.
There was a tremendous amount to like about the Carolina Chocolate Drops from their excellent choice of songs to their musical chops form singing to playing to being an educational resource for music of yesteryear. CCD is to be commended for all. If this was considered work, the Carolina Chocolate Drops sure made it look easy.