May 1st, 2013
It’s basically a given that the Carolina Chocolate Drops will swing through the Madison area at least once a year. Last weekend the band had a two night stand at the Stoughton Opera House and both shows were sold out. They were in fine form when I caught them on Friday night.
What started as an attempt to keep the Piedmont musical legacy of fiddler Joe Thompson alive has turned into a musical outfit of great prowess extolling the joy of whatever music catches the band’s fancy. The line-up has solidified with founding members Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons joined by newcomers Hubby Jenkins and Leyla McCalla, although the latter pair have been part of the band for a couple years or thereabouts.
The night began with a spirited performance of “Black Annie”, a piece learned from Thompson, and continued with the old bluegrass tune “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind”, one of the band’s signature songs, which invited audience participation. The members of CCD all excavate the histories of folk music so you don’t have to and they love to report on what they’ve found. For instance, Giddens brought out a replica of a 19th century banjo for the medley of “Briggs’ Corn Shucking Jig/Camptown Hornpipe” and launched into a mini-lecture about how the banjo was originally an African-American instrument, black face minstrel shows, etc.
Much of the set was familiar, having been performed in their Madison-area shows previously. In addition to “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind”, songs like “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad”, Johnny Cash’s “Jackson”, and “Sourwood Mountain” proved their mettle as reliable crowd pleasers. On the other hand, former stalwarts “Cornbread and Butterbeans” and “Hit ‘em Up Style” were absent. But in their place were some tunes that were new to Madison audiences. Flemons stepped out on Gus Cannon’s “My Money Never Runs Out” and Tampa Red’s “Got It Fixed” while Giddens once again demonstrated her tremendous voice with the doleful “Julie”, a song she wrote after having read a true tale from the Civil War. And Hubby Jenkins added “Buck Creek Girl” to the mix.
McCalla stepped out from behind the cello to do “Rose Marie”, a Haitian song which, like Giddens medley of tunes sung in Gaelic, helped broaden the band’s scope to include more than old-timey Southern folk song. The Chocolate Drops aren’t touring behind a new album but they did include a few songs from their last effort Leaving Eden. “No Man’s Mama” and the title track once again showcased Giddens’ pipes with the latter bringing tears to the eyes of my significant other.
While there were a few genuinely tender moments, CCD shows are mostly light-hearted affairs and Friday night was no different. The audience was invited to dance and sing, Giddens cut a rug, Flemons twirled his guitar, and Jenkins played the bones behind his back. Foot-stompin’ fun and most of the audience left the Opera House knowing more about the history of the banjo than they did coming in.