October 24th, 2011
The Carolina Chocolate Drops cruised into Stoughton last Friday night and played to a sold out Opera House. It was their third stop here in the Madison area in the past year and a half and they put on another great show as they plundered their way through various American songbooks.
I’d seen them last year at the Orton Park Festival but missed their appearance this past spring at the Barrymore Theatre. (Luckily that show is available on YouTube.) Since that day last year, the band has experienced some line-up changes. Justin Robinson left and was replaced by Hubby Jenkins. Beatboxer Adam Matta joined on what I presume to have been an informal basis. He’s gone missing and was replaced by cellist Leyla McCalla.
The CCD earned their reputation by reviving nearly-forgotten black fiddle music and reminding listeners that the banjo started life in Africa with a gourd as its body. They paid homage to their mentor, fiddler Joe Thompson, with songs of his such as “Riro’s House” that showcased Rhiannon Giddens prowess on the instrument. Dom Flemons introduced another song as having been culled from a mid-19th century songbook aimed at white players at a time when the banjo was gaining in popularity in areas not associated with slavery.
But, while they love to plunder age-old songbooks, their tastes aren’t as parochial as it might seem. Giddens plays a mean fiddle but she also has a tremendous set of pipes. This shouldn’t be surprising as she is a trained opera singer. Here she stepped up to the mic and belted out “The Divorce Song”, a jazz tune by Ethel Waters from 1927. She also took on contemporary R&B with “Hit ‘em Up Style (Oops!)”, a positively new song originally done by Blu Cantrell in 2001. Also from the other side of the tracks was the proto-country of “I Truly Understand (That You Love Another Man)”.
Wherever their muses take them, these folks have not only the chops but also the talent to play any instrument required. In addition to her fiddle and other stringed instruments duties, Giddens played a kazoo solo with gusto while Flemons was happy to augment his guitar with pan flute or to bust out a snare drum and some brushes. Jenkins seemed equally at home clawhammering away on a banjo as he did playing rhythm bones and McCalla swapped her cello for what looked like a bodhrán for “Riro’s House”.
Beyond the history lessons and the virtuosity is the fact that CCD shows are just fun. Songs at breakneck tempos like “Sourwood Mountain” are sheer joy that will get your toes tapping while the audience was pulled in to sing along with “Don’t Get Trouble In Your Mind” and “Hi Ho Fiddle I Day”. “Cornbread and Butterbeans” was the encore. Giddens introduced it by saying that they had requests for it. I had no idea it was so popular but I shouldn’t be surprised considering just how blatantly catchy it is.
Jenkins may be new but he fits right in. Like Giddens and Flemons, he is a multi-instrumentalist and he effortlessly juggled banjo, mandolin, rhythm bones, and probably others that I cannot recall. Plus he sang lead on a couple songs that were formerly sung by Robinson. McCalla stayed in the background for the most part alternately plucking the strings of her cello like an upright bass and bowing them. Her parts were not flashy but they filled out the songs and I was especially impressed how well her bowed playing complemented the arrangements.
Madison’s Boo Bradley opened the evening with 25 minutes or so of their jugband attack. I’d heard of them previously but never heard them. Once I became acclimated to Scott Kiker’s voice, it was easy to love their music, a blend of various strains of blues from the first half of the 20th century done on guitar, upright bass, and washboard. Good stuff, Maynard.
Here’s “Hi Ho Fiddle I Day” from the show.
And this is “Riro’s House”.