The Carolina Chocolate Drops in concert
Can a concert be fun and educational at the same time?
If the band is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the answer is yes.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops is an old-time string band that specializes in traditional music from the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina, but is comprised of young, African-American musicians. They play the sort of foot-stomping, fiddle and banjo driven music that tends to be associated with old white musicians from the Appalachians, but the Carolina Chocolate Drops are not a novelty act. The band's original members were mentored by Joe Thompson, an old-time fiddler with a short bowing style that he inherited from generations of family musicians, and had a strong interest in musical styles that were most popular in the early part of the 20th century.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops played The Egg on Sunday, and by the time the concert rolled around I wasn't even sure I wanted to go, because I'd had a tiring weekend. But my misgivings were quickly forgotten. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are highly skilled musicians, but they’re also a lot of fun, with a gift for showmanship — during one song, band member Dom Flemons spun his guitar while he strummed and sang. Between songs, the Chocolate Drops explained a little bit of the history of the music they were playing, which could have gotten boring if the band wasn't so engaging, and the music so exhilarating. The band played “a hobo song” called “Milwaukee Blues,” a bluesy 1929 song about divorce, a jazzy song from Haiti, where cellist Leyla McCalla’s family is from, and an awesome rendition of the 2001 R&B hit “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!).” McCalla is a relatively new addition to the group, but her cello added a beautiful, rich and classical undertone to the band’s rollicking twang. The band members are all versatile musicians, but they’re also very good singers, too, with Rhiannon Giddens a particular standout.
Despite the old-time vibe, the music felt pretty modern, which was probably the point — by dusting off long-forgotten tunes and updating them for modern audiences, the Carolina Chocolate Drops reveal how today’s music was influenced by the old music in their repertoire, and also why the music was once popular. Nothing about the show felt dated, and all of the songs felt surprisingly vital — even an a cappella song about Juneteenth that was sung as an encore. And the use of traditional and vintage instruments felt like much more than a gimmick. The Carolina Chocolate Drops expertly played the bones, made excellent use of a minstrel-era banjo and also used harmonica, jug, mandolin, snare drum and their own two feet to recreate the sound of an old-time string band from North Carolina. It's no accident that the group won a Grammy for their 2010 album, “Genuine Negro Jig.”
Sunday’s concert was one of the best shows I’ve seen in awhile, and I won't soon forget it. I learned a lot, but also heard some really good music. Hopefully it won't be too long before the Carolina Chocolate Drops return to the Capital Region.
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