May 23rd, 2012
The Carolina Chocolate Drops seem to be in the Madison area every six months or so and they were due for a spring stop which they made earlier this month on the 4th at the Capitol Theatre.
Allison Russell and Awna Teixeira form the Canadian duo Po’ Girl which opened. Their short set was hit or miss, to my taste. Russell was all smiles and energy with her stomping her feet from the first few notes while Teixeira was more restrained and pensive. About half of their set was dedicated to slowly strummed ballads of the kind that makes turn off WORT on Sunday mornings. They’re just overly earnest like a teenager’s diary. And this despite some genuinely heartfelt lyrics such as those by Russell describing her hopes for her mother who is stuck in an abusive relationship. But when she picked up a clarinet and Teixeira her accordion, the Eastern European inflected result was magic. As was their final song which was simply hand clapping and call-and-response vocals with the audience.
When the Chocolate Drops took the stage, Rhiannon Giddens was disappointed that there was to be no dancing which is odd because the prim and proper setting didn’t stop fans at the Gogol Bordello show there a couple Halloweens back. Despite the theatre’s rugs being safe, the band played an energetic set and we in the audience managed to show our enthusiasm from a seated position.
The band’s repertoire was a heady mix of old and new, songs from their albums and those yet to be recorded, along with a healthy dose of well-known tunes that are guaranteed to get an audience moving and singing (well, most audiences, anyway). The crowd pleasing sing-a-long “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind” came early in the set and got the audience moving in their seats. From there we got to hear some music from the CCD’s latest album, Leaving Eden. “Boodle-De-Bum-Bum” was a bit of nonsensical fun that Dom Flemmons said meant whatever you wanted it to. Giddens belted out Ethel Waters’ paean to divorce, “No Man’s Mama”, with gusto and she also performed a couple Celtic songs in Gaelic.
No CCD concert is complete without Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens waxing musicological about the traditions from which they draw inspiration. Flemons is perhaps the epitome of folk song nerds. He spends a lot of time listening to recordings at the Library of Congress. So much so that he apparently does a spot-on impression of the recording engineer who transferred Alan Lomax’s shellac discs to tape for the LoC. Flemons introduced the ragtime classic “There’ll Be A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” by mentioning that this song was part of a vaudeville revival called “Keep a Song in Your Soul” that the band was a part of in Chicago last autumn. Allison Russell returned to the stage with her clarinet accompanied by Angela Wellman and her trombone. Both were reprising their roles in “Keep a Song in Your Soul”. Unlike members of the audience, Giddens left her chair to do her best flapper imitation.
For her part, Giddens told the audience that the banjo originated in Africa and proceeded to make a case for the musical side of minstrelsy. With all the ugly racism that was a part of it, the music at minstrel shows was tucked away and forgotten as well as the fact that they were breeding grounds for innovation as black and white musicians traded licks. She went on to play a medley of “Briggs’ Corn Shucking Jig / Camptown Hornpipe” on a goat-skinned banjo which required a bit of heating before it could be played.
While Hubby Jenkins doesn’t banter with the audience a whole lot, his contributions are no less important. Like his bandmates, he’s a multi-instrumentalist who juggles duty on banjo, mandolin, bones, and whatever else is needed. Plus his voice adds a more gruff dimension to the chorus as well as a bluesy edge to songs like “Polly Put the Kettle On” and “Last Chance”. Leyla McCalla may be a part-time member of the band but her cello is becoming more and more integral to the band’s sound. She really comes into her own on “Leaving Eden”. The mournful tones she culled from her cello echoed the heartbreak of Giddens’ singing as she described the plight of small town folk who find their way of life riven by a globalizing economy.
A trio of crowd favorites came late in the set – “Cornbread and Butterbeans”, “Sourwood Mountain”, and, by request, “Hit ‘Em Up Style” – before “Read ‘Em John”, a ring shout from the Georgia Sea Islands, brought the night to a close.
Presumably CCD will be back in the fall with some more songs poached from the Library of Congress and dusted off for the 21st century. Or perhaps from YouTube.