The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Roomful Of Blues & Buckwheat Zydeco

Martin Longley By

Sign in to view read count
The Carolina Chocolate Drops
The Allen Room
February 2, 2011

What's the difference between country blues and country country? How do we separate hillbilly clunking from Delta sliding? Does the banjo solely descend from the West African n'goni? The Carolina Chocolate Drops engaged with certain aspects of these questions at strategic points throughout its set. The ethnicity of its performers did, admittedly, place a different slant on the presentation of particular musical genres. Having heard their recorded works, and witnessed the Drops in 2010 at Harlem's Schomburg Center For Research In Black Culture, much of its chosen material appeared to inhabit the blues songster book, anyway, from The Memphis Jug Band to Taj Mahal. And so it did, in performance. But the Drops also played Johnny Cash. And an important influence on its Piedmont string-band sound was 93-year-old North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson, one of the few surviving founding fathers of black American hillbilly music. The Drops used to regularly attend the Thursday night jam sessions, held at his house. Anyway, banjoist/guitarist Dom Flemons proved quite capable of holding court at the Terra Blues bar on Bleecker Street, and has played solo sets there on several occasions.

The Drops confronted the little-acknowledged memory of New York City's slave trade; they joked about black folks feeling guilty about digging hillbilly music; and they even sported a band name that flew straight out of the 1930s. Matters ain't as clear-cut as they used to be, and the Chocolate Drops exist to underline the complexities of musical lineages. They also exist as virtuoso entertainers. And they exist to have a good time. It certainly didn't take them long to rouse an initially taciturn crowd.

This gig was part of Lincoln Center's annual American Songbook series, which is held in the concert space with the best view in New York. The Allen Room's tiered seats look down on Columbus Circle, and the south-west corner of Central Park, with its stage sat in front of this huge, windowed backdrop. The band was clearly impressed, as every first-time visitor is similarly awed.

The three Drops spent much of their set swapping instruments, setting in motion a constantly changing combination between vocals, banjo, fiddle, guitar, kazoo, snare drum, cowbone-percussion and jug-huffing bass lines. All three were strong 'n' fine singers, harmonizing with keen resonance. Rhiannon Giddens was probably the most individualist vocalist, but Dom Flemons had a more nonchalant, old-time raconteur's delivery.

Actually, on this occasion, the Drops trio was augmented by NYC resident Hubby Jenkins on guitar and mandolin, for reasons which became clearer at the end of the night. He sat out on many of the songs, as did third member Justin Robinson. The repertoire didn't necessarily require all of the band players to be active all of the time. Jenkins clearly hadn't had the chance to induct himself fully, and appeared as a cautious outsider, often fulfilling a rhythmic role. The core Drops have been recording and touring together for six years, and it showed in its intimately natural performing rapport.

Audience participation is a significant part of their show, but the band conducted this in such a way that even those who tire of such moves couldn't help but be impressed. The sing-alongs were genuinely part of each song, the clapping accompaniment springing out organically, as Giddens and Flemons adopted a well-whittled sense of wit, balanced with a certain amount of historically explanatory backgrounding. The songs had an uncompromised folkloric authenticity, but the entire experience could also be viewed as accessible entertainment. For a couple of songs, Giddens moved side-stage for a bout of spirited flat-footing, and Flemons was also adept with the occasional outbreak of guitar-twirling whilst hoofing.

The waters were further swirled around when the Drops presented its string-band re-interpretation of Blu Cantrell's 2001 R&B number "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops!)," as Robinson's jug-buzzing technique was switched to close-miked beatboxing, and Giddens demonstrated a much more intense vocal delivery when compared to the Drops' album version. She's inhabiting the song completely now. This same comment could be made about the repertoire in general. Months of persistent touring have honed these numbers into entities that far surpass their studio incarnations. Further favorites stomped on by, with spirited renditions of "Georgie Buck," "Snowden's Jig" and "Cornbread And Butterbeans." The American Songbook set-list wasn't adhered to strictly, as the trio threw in a few extras, one being "Jackson," as performed by Johnny Cash and June Carter. A typical mash-up of the Chocolate repertoire.


More Articles

Read "Red Hook Jazz Festival 2016" Live From New York Red Hook Jazz Festival 2016
by Martin Longley
Published: July 7, 2016
Read "Bill Frisell's "Guitar in the Space Age" at the Blue Note" New York @ Night Bill Frisell's "Guitar in the Space Age" at the Blue Note
by Peter Jurew
Published: October 20, 2016
Read "Barney Kessel: The First Four Albums" Getting Into Jazz Barney Kessel: The First Four Albums
by Mark Barnett
Published: June 6, 2016
Read "Five By Five - More Love From Ivo Perelman" Multiple Reviews Five By Five - More Love From Ivo Perelman
by Mark Corroto
Published: May 4, 2016
Read "Seth Walker: Gotta Get Back" Extended Analysis Seth Walker: Gotta Get Back
by Doug Collette
Published: September 18, 2016
Read "The Virtues of Jazz" What is Jazz? The Virtues of Jazz
by Douglas Groothuis
Published: April 12, 2016
Read "Dan Phillips Returns To Chicago" Multiple Reviews Dan Phillips Returns To Chicago
by Mark Corroto
Published: February 21, 2017

Post a comment

comments powered by Disqus

Sponsor: ECM Records | BUY NOW  

Support our sponsor

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!

Buy it!