Live Music: The Carolina Chocolate Drops at Royce Hall

By Mike Finkelstein

Last weekend, UCLA live presented the Carolina Chocolate Drops to an enthusiastic if not capacity Royce Hall crowd.   To be sure, this audience did not just wander in.  They were there by choice to see CCD’s winsome presentation of traditional African American string music.   The evening was an inspiring blend of historical anecdotes, introductions and performance of the sort one doesn’t often get to see.  Each song was given a streamlined but meaningful introduction and we were eased into the context and background of the tune and the instruments they were using.  But the payoff came when the band would kick the song into glorious motion.   

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are the project of Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson.   Inspired by their late mentor, fiddler Joe Thompson, in North Carolina, they came out of the gates flying with a Grammy award winning album, Genuine Negro Jig.  Soon, Robinson left the group to stay grounded in his beloved Carolina environs.   At this point Flemons (guitar, banjo, snare drum, bones, vocals) and Giddens (fiddles, banjos, vocals) brought in their friend, Hubby Jenkins, on guitar banjo, steel mandolin and bones.  They also brought in beatboxer Adam Matta.  Basically the group is Flemons, Giddens, Jenkins and a fourth guest as the situation dictates.  At Royce the fourth member was a very tasty choice in Leyla McCalla on cello.   

Carolina Chocolate Drops

There is something invigorating, even downright thrilling about string instruments coming in more loudly than softly.   The sound just washes over an audience.  The ambience was tangible in Royce as the CCDs revved things up famously.  They play their instruments with gusto and each instrument vibrates to the max.  But it’s really the juxtaposition of sounds that sets them apart.   Typically the arrangement is based around some variation on guitar, fiddle, banjo and, in this case, the cello supplied the bass registers.  As Leyla plucked, chorded, and bowed the cello, it gave a richer bottom end with more midrange than a full bass might, as well as just the right range of thump and percussive attack.  It certainly gave the sound an enticingly unique matrix to set in.   

Most of the percussion the group uses, aside from the sound of fingers on strings, came from the bones.   These are actually hard pieces of wood shaped like rib-bones that are played between the thumb and fingers.   The bones add a great deal of crackle and quick syncopation to the sound.  Having given us a brief bones tutorial earlier, both Flemons and Jenkins proceeded to show us that they can be used for arm waving showmanship, too .   

With their rural themed wool, linen, and denim clothes in muted colors and Flemons’ suspenders and pork pie hat, the CCDs exuded a 1920’s authenticity.   It was nearly like looking into a living, breathing faded photograph from the same time period.  In the spirit of showmanship and grace, Flemons twirled his guitar several times without missing a chord in the midst of a throbbing set of chords.  But watching Giddens stop the show mid-song (“the old jam on the brakes technique”) to tune her fiddle was priceless – true grace under pressure.  

The program drew largely from their new album Leaving Eden, a reference to how jobs and hence livelihoods are leaving Eden, NC far too abruptly for comfort these days.   Every song was an intriguing new set of ideas but there were several standouts.  “Kerr’s Negro Jig” was the opener with the cello driving the song from the bottom up and establishing the unique presence the cello would hold all night.  

Rhiannon introduced “No Man’s Mama” as a Broadway show tune about the virtues of divorce.  First sung by Ethel Waters in the 1920’s, it’s a very assertive and liberated set of words about a woman regaining her independence and not dragging around a ball and chain in the form of a husband.   There were breaks for melodic whistling and crisp, direct guitar lines from Jenkins. 

Leyla introduced the likely gem of the show and its name was “Mahalla.”   The idea of this gorgeous song from the Karoo region of South Africa centers on finding the sun dying in the middle of a beautiful valley and having to bury it.   The interplay of cello, guitar, banjo and fiddle was upbeat, melodic and haunting all at once.  

Briggs Corn Shucking Jig” featured the hypnotic clatter of the bones below Rhiannon on the Minstrel style fretless banjo, which featured a goatskin top, gut strings (ideally), no frets, a softer, muted banjo sound and it’s also more temperamental to keep in tune that a standard banjo.   

For the encore they gave us “Read ‘em John,” powered by syncopated handclaps, and four-part a capella harmony.   It was a tidy and moving way to end a great show.   I must admit I made a beeline to the lobby to pick up a copy of Leaving Eden in case they were to sell out.  And wouldn’t you know they sold all their bones, too.

Opening the show was the David Wax Museum, riding the wave of going over big at the recent South By Southwest Festival in Austin.   They are David Wax and Suz Slezak, who were joined on Friday by Greg Glassner on cajon and leona.   Their tunes were an inviting and upbeat. syncopated folky blend of cleverly woven celtic and Veracruzan influences.  Along with guitar, cajon, and fiddle, they also used some esoteric instruments such as the quijada (made from a donkey’s jaw bone-for a clattering syncopated rasp) and the leona, a four-string guitar that delivers standout midrange bass runs. The three of them proceeded to leave the stage at one point and spread out through the floor of Royce to deliver the goods acoustically.   Another nice touch was their presentation of “Chuchubebe,” a song that was banned in 1766 during the Spanish Inquisition (perhaps because it alludes to people dancing navel to navel).  It seems that the words were transcribed then and have recently seen the light of day again, courtesy of DWM. 

This evening was full of moments like this where we were presented with a great song that came with a similarly cool story. Truly satisfying. 

* * * * *

Photo courtesy of UCLA Live.

To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein, click HERE.

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