Carolina Chocolate Drops | 10.20.10

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By this time, band members and audience members had worked themselves to a fever pitch, and dozens of people could be seen wiping sweat from their brows.

 
 
 
 
 
Sheldon Concert Hall, St. Louis
 
A live performance by the Carolina Chocolate Drops is equal parts music history, accomplished musicianship and thrilling showmanship. When I left last Wednesday night’s uplifting show at the Sheldon, I had increased my knowledge, listened to exquisitely skilled performances and stomped my feet into a tingling frenzy.
 
Based on the persistent, start-to-finish energy of the sold-out crowd, I’d guess others would say the same thing. It’s clear that St. Louis music fans appreciate the unique blend of minstrel banjo, bluegrass and early 20th century blues the Chocolate Drops bring to the stage. The evening’s performance contained pieces of music dating from the middle of the 19th century mixed with an array of songs from the early 20th century, and it even included a 21st century “revenge song.”
 
The trio includes Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson. They met in 2005, having come together by way of a Yahoo group called “Black Banjo: Then and Now.” The online chat group led to the formation of the Black Banjo Gathering, in Asheville, North Carolina, in late spring of ’05. From that gathering, the formative path led to the home of Joe Thompson, a legendary old-time fiddler living in Mebane, North Carolina. Giddens, Flemons and Robinson agreed to meet every Thursday at Thompson’s house, where they apprenticed at the feet of a true master.
 
When they decided to form a band, they chose the name Carolina Chocolate Drops to pay homage to the music’s Piedmont history. The Tennessee Chocolate Drops, comprised of Howard, Martin and Bogan Armstrong, were one of the hottest black string bands of the 1930s, so they simply switched state names, adding Carolina in honor of the place where they learned from Thompson. But how does a band, formed almost as an afterthought to honor a teacher, go from playing the banjo, fiddle and jug on Joe Thompson’s back porch to appearing at Bonnaroo and selling out the Sheldon Concert Hall?
 
Well, if Wednesday night’s show was any indication, they do it by giving one spectacular performance after another. The three traded instruments throughout the show, with Robinson and Giddens splitting time on the fiddle, Giddens and Flemons trading the banjo and Flemons and Robinson taking turns with various sizes of jugs. A little kazoo, bones and beat boxing were thrown in for good measure.
 
The band opened with “Peace Behind the Bridge,” a soulful Etta Baker tune that set the tone for the night. They moved into a Joe Thompson standard, “Georgia Buck,” that has become a staple of the Chocolate Drops. The third tune of the night, “You’re Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” a rollicking Papa Charlie Jackson number, stirred the Sheldon crowd into a frenzy it wouldn’t come out of for 90 minutes. The song featured an extended kazoo solo from Giddens, a funky jug solo from Robinson and a knee-slapping, banjo-picking solo from Flemons.
 
Giddens invited the crowd to participate in the next song, “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind,” performed in a call-and-response format that had the crowd chiming in after every verse. As Giddens was teaching the lyrics to the crowd, she advised us that the actual song would be performed at a faster pace than we were singing. Flemons playfully interrupted, offering, “Now, you can’t play too fast here. This is where they made ragtime and rock and roll!” This nod to St. Louis natives Scott Joplin and Chuck Berry drew a roar of applause from the crowd.
 
For the remainder of the show, the sound of audience members clapping and stomping their feet was continuous. Among the many treats was Flemons playing the fife and drum during “Boatman’s Dance,” which he followed with an intense banjo solo, leading into a solo performance of “It’s a Good Thing,” by Frank Stokes. Flemons gave the audience its choice of instruments during his solo, offering either the guitar or banjo. When consulted, the audience bellowed in near unanimity, “BANJO!” Flemons chuckled, saying, “It’s a funny time in this world when the banjo is the more requested instrument.”
 
Just when it seemed the audience couldn’t be louder or more engaged, Giddens introduced the band’s next tune, a cover of “Jackson,” by Johnny Cash and June Carter. Giddens and Robinson shared the lyrical duties, and while both shined, Giddens accessed another level of vocal intensity during Carter’s lines, which only ratcheted up the crowd noise even more. By this time, band members and audience members had worked themselves to a fever pitch, and dozens of people could be seen wiping sweat from their brows.
 
A subdued version of “Old Cat Died” followed, with Giddens taking on a trance-like aspect as she worked on her fiddle. The band’s timing was perfect, and the crowd took a needed rest from the upbeat tunes during the song. The rest was short-lived, however, as the group quickened the pace with a couple of mid-19th century minstrel banjo numbers that Giddens had learned from an old banjo instructor text. Flemons added a local touch to the two songs, inviting local bones player Scott Miller to join him on stage for a rousing bones duet. The crowd appreciated Miller’s skill and enthusiasm, and his appearance drew thunderous applause as he left the stage.
 
Heading into the show’s home stretch, the band brought out another staple, “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” followed by a Charleston-style romp of a tune, “Salty Dog,” during which Giddens got up and danced swing-style, much to the crowd’s delight. “Genuine Negro Jig,” the title track from the group’s latest album, was next, and once again the crowd joined in on the percussive elements. Robinson set the beat with a three-beat foot stomp followed by a handclap, which the audience happily performed for the song’s duration. The tune has a primal, mournful power to it, which was intensified by the audience participation.
 
Another Joe Thompson tune, “Black Annie,” was followed by the “revenge song” mentioned earlier, a cover of Blu Cantrell’s 2001 R&B hit, “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” By this time the entire audience was on its feet, with only one song to go. One final time, Giddens instructed the crowd for a call and response lyric, this time on “Sour Mountain,” which contains the refrain, ‘Hi-ho, fiddle-eye-eh!’ The group whipped their fans into a final frenzy before bowing to a thunderous standing ovation and exiting the stage. However, the audience would have none of it, shaking the rafters with applause for four long minutes before the trio returned for an encore.
 
The final treat of the night was the three musicians showing off their stellar singing voices as they performed a cappella versions of two old time gospel tunes before bidding the crowd farewell.
 
They may not be famous yet, but with performances like this, it’s only a matter of time before they will be. One measure of just how far the group has come is its inclusion in a recent list assembled by the African American culture and politics web site, www.theroot.com. The feature is titled “The Root 100,” and is described as chronicling “young African American pace setters and game changers.”
 
In the meantime, I would highly recommend the group to music fans of all genres, and it’s likely they’ll return to St. Louis soon. Why is that? Well, just before their final song, Giddens thanked the crowd for its energy, relating details of previous visits to St. Louis, each of which they had enjoyed thoroughly. “We’re mighty fond of your city,” she concluded. The feeling is mutual. | Stephen Fairbanks
 
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