PHOTO: SOPHOUT NOP
On paper, the Carolina Chocolate Drops sound unlikely and even a bit academic: a black old-time string band playing what most of their audience probably thinks of as white hillbilly music, reclaiming the place of African-Americans in that particular musical narrative. Live, they make total sense and are anything but academic, creating a stomping, virtuosic music that’s totally engaging. They packed Berklee Performance Center Saturday night, in a concert presented by World Music, with a racially and generationally mixed crowd that whooped and clapped in time with the band, even sang along heartily on a couple of choruses. None of this seemed quaint or corny.
They were playing the show on the heels of the February 28 release of Leaving Eden (Nonesuch), the follow-up to their 2010 Grammy Winner (Best Contemporary Folk Album), Genuine Negro Jig. They performed a good chunk of the new album’s songs— breakdowns, waltzes, blues, old-time jazz, another jig (“Kerr’s Negro Jig,” which they explained, tongue-in-cheek, is “a regular Negro jig”), the Georgia South Sea Island Singers, and a South African Karoo song. The music extended from the 1850s all the way up to their show-stopping version of Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Hit ’Em Up Style” and a 2011 original by CCD fiddle player and singer Rhiannon Giddens.
The band last toured as a trio, but the latest iteration of the band is a quartet, with original members Giddens and guitarist/banjo/jug player Dom Flemons joined by multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and cellist Layla McCalla (both on the new disc). They get a broad range of textures and moods – mixing fiddle, banjos, guitar, percussion “bones,” mandolin. McCalla adds a new depth to the bottom end, whether plucking bass lines or “singing” long tones with her bow. Everyone takes turns singing lead or trading verses or harmonizing. And there’s also the band’s phenomenal stage charm, Giddens and Flemons being the main talkers (McCalla said nothing).
They also look great – Flemons in his pork-pie hat and suspendered pants, Giddens in an orange dress over jeans, Jenkins in a cap, black vest, pants, and tie with white shirt, McCalla in a simple brown leotard top over jeans.
Flemons said the band were taking the idea of folklorist Alan Lomax’s “cultural equity” to include “historical equity,” and so that meant not shirking the embarrassment of songs that were originally sung in blackface, but embracing some great music that first brought white and black Americans together. On a couple of numbers, Giddens played a replica of a minstrel-era banjo, deep and resonant. Although most of the night they sat in four chairs at the edge of the stage (occasionally rising to sing solo or to dance, play bones, or flip a guitar), they performed the second encore, the Georgia Sea Island Singers’ “Read ’em John,” all standing, a cappella. It was, the band told us, about literate blacks who were able to read the Emancipation Proclamation — and spread the word.