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.