Carolina Chocolate Drops Drop an Invigorating Set at Infinity Hall
Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops at Infinity Music Hall, March 7, 2012
Did you know that the sugar should be added before the tea is brewed, not after it’s poured into a tall glass of ice? That’s the southern way, and just one of the lessons learned from North Carolina native and country girl Rhiannon Giddens, co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
There were history and music lessons as well, seamlessly woven into an exhilarating Infinity Hall show that had the audience singing and dancing in their chairs, then on their feet to ask for more. Rhiannon demonstrated and played the minstrel banjo, a five string, fretless instrument that grew popular in America during the early to mid 1800’s. The traditional minstrel banjo uses a stretched skin head; as a result, instrument performance is affected by humidity. Rhiannon used a portable heater on stage to dry and tighten the skin before playing the banjo. Band co-founder Dom Flemons confessed that on occasion they’ve used a match to dry out the instrument during a performance; he advised against using a blow torch.
I had difficulty counting the number of instruments each musician played on stage. Cellist Leyla McCalla obliged by limiting play to her instrument of first choice. Rhiannon showcased her skills on the fiddle, banjos and the guitar. To her right, Hubby Jenkins picked a mean banjo; played guitar and mandolin. Dom Flemons could not be contained. At one time or another he played guitar, banjo, the jug, snare drum, and the bones….at least. Regardless of the instrument played, the music was crisp and intense, building in momentum during songs that featured banjo/fiddle play. All four band members contributed vocals to the mix. Rhiannon’s soprano lead stood out; the notes were shaped, not just sung. Her bell tone finished with a vibrato that was light, but warm and engaging.
The majority of songs were drawn from the band’s newly released album Leaving Eden. Like their Grammy celebrated debut (Genuine Negro Jig), the album explores and expands upon the roots of American popular music, influenced by southern black, traditional folk music and the blues. While there is a strong sense of history in the way the songs are presented, the music sounds fresh and alive. Two of the strongest songs performed last Wednesday evening are new, original compositions. “Country Girl” was co-written by Rhiannon Giddens and is testimony to the singer’s love for her country home. Fiddle heavy with a certain beat and a memorable chorus, this song had the most contemporary feel of those presented. The title track “Leaving Eden” was written by North Carolina songwriter Laurelyn Dossett and is a lovely, sensitive ballad that laments a mill town changed by the global economy.
Other standout performances included covers of “Read ‘Em John” with Dom Flemons on lead vocal, and “No Man’s Mama” with Rhiannon on the lead. “Read ‘Em John” recognizes slaves who found a path to freedom through reading/education. Performed as a call and response “shout”, the song was punctuated by the rhythmic, clapping sound of the bones and Dom’s solemn, forceful vocal. “No Man’s Mama” was orignally performed by Ethel Waters. A blues tune that offers a humorous take on divorce, the song was beautifully phrased and delivered at Infinity Hall.
Regardless of the song performed, the music was played with enthusiasm and energy, and the audience responded in kind. On a weekday evening the audience for the Carolina Chocolate Drops was varied in age and gender, but uniform in response. They sang when invited, clapped when appropriate and hollered when moved. If they felt as I did, then they left uplifted by music that is historically relevant but freshly interpreted, and by an intimate performance that was both spirited and inclusive.
Listen to samples of all fifteen tracks on Leaving Eden and purchase the album on iTunes here. The official website for the Carolina Chocolate Drops is here. A gallery of photos from the Infinity Hall show follows:
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Opening for the Carolina Chocolate Drops was Original Jelly Roll Soul, a jazz/roots band newly formed in 2010, and already nominated for a New England Music Award. Pictured here are JP Beausoleil, lead vocalist/cornet player for OJRS and Dom Flemons. Dom joined the band for a few songs at the end of their opening set.
Rhiannon Giddens left North Carolina for the Oberlin Conservatory where her vocal training included operatic roles.
Leyla McCalla is a touring musician who is also featured on the band’s new album, Leaving Eden.
Hubby Jenkins joined the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2011, adding jazz sensibilities that contribute to many of the songs, including “No Man’s Mama”.
Rhiannon Giddens during a brief quiet moment on stage.
Dom Flemons on banjo, Rhiannon on vocals.
Leyla McCalla on cello, Dom Flemons on the jug.
Rhiannon on fiddle.
Dom giving a history lesson.
Hubby on vocals.
Rhiannon moved to dance!
Dom on vocals, Rhiannon on the minstrel, fretless banjo.
Dom, Rhiannon, and Hubby with multi-instrument versatility.