Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Carolina Chocolate Drops and their umbrella revolution

There was a moment after the biracial Barack Obama was elected to the presidency that the punditocracy declared the United States a “post-racial” society. Unfortunately, issues of racial disparity and strife continue to plague us (or do you still think of the Scottish TV host when you hear the word “Ferguson”?). In the world of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, though, the best of both worlds do coexist. The quartet plays a blend of old-time musical styles, with elements of jug bands and string bands, country and western, Celtic, blues, hot jazz and traditional African approaches all informing a self-described “folk” band whose membership recently included a beatboxer.

It’s also a new world for the Drops now, once again. After winning a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album for their first widely-distributed album, Genuine Negro Jig (on the acclaimed Nonesuch label), in 2010, founding members Rhiannon Giddens (vocals, banjo, fiddle, kazoo) and Dom Flemons (vocals, banjo, guitar, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum, bones, quills) replaced fiddler Justin Robinson with the aforementioned beatboxer, Adam Matta, and Hubby Jenkins (vocals, guitar, mandolin, banjo, bones). A year later, they added cellist Layla McCalla. By the end of 2013, Flemons had left for a solo career, and Matta and McCalla were gone, too. Giddens and Jenkins now play with cellist Malcolm Parson and new multi-instrumentalist Rowan Corbett (guitar, bones, snare drum, cajon, djembe).

That type of evolution shouldn’t be very surprising for a group determined to live in the present, looking back only to hold on to the best elements available to make the best music possible. It’s an approach that has won them endless love from theaters worldwide like our Clifton Center, roots music festivals, public radio programs and venerable publications like the New York Times (their writer Brian Seibert called Giddens “ridiculously charismatic” in a recent review of a concert he described as “rollicking, revelatory”).

That review pointed out the band’s intent as a dance band, one trying to educate their audience to a new way of hearing and seeing the world without making it feel educational. The band’s reclamation of the banjo, in particular, has helped fuel new interest in mostly forgotten music like jug band music, and the band – who plays for two nights at the Clifton Center – has proven especially popular in Louisville, where that genre was created. Dom Flemons spoke to journalist Michael L. Jones for the new book Louisville Jug Music, noting that “A lot of the history around the Louisville jug bands has not been written down in a way that is easy for people to digest,” a situation alleviated by Jones’ contribution to that story.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops came together in Durham, North Carolina, almost a decade ago. They found their sound in the traditional music of the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, studying with elder master fiddler Joe Thompson. Their most recent studio album, Leaving Eden, was released by Nonesuch in 2012. It had a touch more of a country/folk edge to it, aided by producer Buddy Miller (known for his work with Emmylou Harris, Solomon Burke and on the Nashville TV series). It was a transitional period for Giddens and her men, and the latest line-up revision promises another new dimension when the band returns to the studio.

Upon the release of Leaving Eden, Giddens said it like this: “We want to remain true to the roots of how we started. We’re always going to have a string band on our records. But we don’t want to just do Piedmont style fiddle-banjo-guitar tunes; there’s more to our musical life than that. We grow in a healthy, slow way that reflects our true development as musicians and as a band.”

Flemons recently further clarified their mission in an interview with Durham’s Indy Week newspaper. “When we first started the Carolina Chocolate Drops, it was always a three-person collective. For it to be a collective, each individual has their own intentions, their own ways of doing their material and the way they decide to play it. The idea of it being a band lessens the purpose of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. It’s an umbrella. It should be a place where we help out musicians.”

Carolina Chocolate Drops with Birds of Chicago
Wednesday, Oct. 22 & Thursday, Oct. 23
Clifton Center
2117 Payne St.
$29; 7:30 p.m.

c. 2014 Clifton Center

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