Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops

Hugh’s Room, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Call them what you will – traditionalists, revivalists or just damned talented players harnessing the time-honoured ability to breathe new-life into the stringband category. But you owe it to yourself to witness this band live – to see and hear for yourself as this aged, handed-down music rises up off the floor and flows directly into your bones – as if the very originators of the category were channeling the music’s spirit through its young hosts.

The appeal is timeless, all the more surprising when the combined ages of the three talented players –Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons – barely equate to the time when their mentors, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, enjoyed their heyday back in the ‘20s. Their second visit to Hugh’s Room, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are three African-Americans who – armed with banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar, drum, spoons and vintage jug – drive their Piedmont-styled version of string-band music into an area that has little to do with their respective southern roots.
Most important to the melding of musical genres on-stage is each band member’s absolute reverence for tradition and the seasoned veterans they’ve learned from along the way. Each player brings their own strengths to the party. Flemons has more energy in his fingers than most of the rest of us have in our entire bodies – expertly accompanying the band on guitar, banjo, snare drum, spoons or jug – sometimes playing two instruments at once, quick to embellish the rhythms with a dance step or two. Also a fine singer, he’s matched by the sweet, honeyed vocals of key fiddler Robinson, who doubles on banjo, autoharp and jug in support of the others.

The band’s focal point is certainly Giddens, whose Madonna-like, classic features do little to prepare you for the absolute purity and soulfulness of her vocals and her adeptness on banjo and fiddle. Acting as key storyteller, with able assists from Flemons, Gibbens provides much of the fascinating history behind each composition, offering as much of an education on the music they hold so dear as they do an intoxicating blur of musical styles – delivered by players whose musical ability cannot be understated.

Of interest to the gathered group of fans – even beyond their encyclopedic knowledge of the category – is their willingness to embrace new influences. On repeated occasion, Gibbens referenced Canadian Celtic influences in her appreciation of the enthusiasm received from their Canadian audiences, adding a few ‘learned in Canada’ pieces to their set. Who knew something so seemingly simple as a three-piece stringband could deliver such no-holds-barred firepower and elicit such energy from a crowd? This is a roots music that deserves more widespread recognition and, thanks to the sheer energy and enthusiastic conviction demonstrated by the Carolina Chocolate Drops on this special night, we’ll return to a time when its prominence rises above the less visceral variety that earns far more than its share of notoriety today. We can only hope.

– Eric Thom

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1 comment

  1. avatar
    John Morrow 23 May, 2010 at 12:02

    I first heard these folks in Memphis at Folk Alliance a couple of years back and I have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing them many times since. I love that they are continuing such a great musical tradition. When you hear their music you are hearing ROOTS – damn fine roots too.

    I honestly believe they get better ever time, and you won’t find nicer people anywhere. Go up and say hi next time you get a chance to see them – they’re great.

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