Carolina Chocolate Drops @ Mercy Lounge, Nashville, TN 12/7/10
I had the good fortune of seeing the Carolina Chocolate Drops about a year ago here in Nashville at a relatively small club. A good crowd was in attendance, for certain, but it wasn't a sell-out, nor was it uncomfortably packed. Fast forward a year to a club at least three times the size with a jam-packed, sold-out crowd. The dramatic success of this young trio over the past year is well-deserved (including their Grammy nomination.) They are all talented multi-instrumentalists. They are true professionals who know how to work a crowd. They exude a deep reverence for the older musical forms upon which they've built their sound but aren't afraid to innovate and experiment to sculpt something wholly new and unique to themselves. Lastly, the Chocolate Drops are just plain fun, even in the context of showcasing some serious musical chops, a combination not always easy to find. From the moment they stepped upon the Mercy Lounge stage on a frigid winter evening, they had the place cookin' all night long.
The band came out full of energy with two high-octane fiddle tunes, “Starry Crown” and “Georgie Buck.” I was instantly jarred out of my mopey concerns about the uncomfortably crowded venue and realized that a packed house was going to be a huge asset for this show. The stringband seemed genuinely happy to be there, energized by the packed house, and supremely confident. I knew I was in for a great night. After their opening fiddle songs, the band jumped into a jaunty jazz tune, “Viper Man,” with Dom Flemons working some ragtime rhythms on his tenor banjo. After that, they encouraged the crowd to sing along to “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind,” and the enthusiastic audience gladly obliged amidst lots of dancing bodies and bobbing heads. The dancing didn’t stop with the next tune, "Will Adam’s Breakdown," as Flemons strapped a snare drum around his neck and kept a funky, regimented beat going using his percussive bones as drumsticks. It was a perfect intro to let the born showman take the stage all to himself for a few harmonica jigs while the rest of the band stepped off stage for break.
It is obvious that Flemons relishes the spotlight, and he managed to keep the crowd pumped with only his voice and harmonica. After offering a reverential introduction paying homage to DeFord Bailey, the first black performer on the Grand Ole Opry, Flemons huffed and puffed a rollicking version of "The Fox Chase," which he said he learned from Bailey recordings. He was accompanied by the crowd stomping the beat behind his breakneck harp riffs. The energy waned only slightly with his next tune, “There’s a Brown Skinned Down the Road Somewhere.” After this interlude, the rest of the band came back on stage for what I thought was the highlight of the night.
In obvious reverence to Nashville, they played a splendid arrangement of Johnny and June Carter Cash's "Jackson," with Justin Robinson and Rhiannon Giddens handling the vocals. I hope they decide to record this tune sometime, because their reworking of the traditional country radio tune was 1) something I'd never heard them try before and 2) beautifully executed. The song ended with a rollicking breakdown, and I don't think I saw a single face in the room without a big wide smile.
After the Johnny Cash tribute, they moved into the title track for their most recent album, "Genuine Negro Jig" explaining that they had seen this tune transcribed in a historian's notes with the same title. They joked that the title was authentically and unironically deadpan, intended to indicate that the author had actually seen "real life Negros" playing such a jig. Their reclamation of the song was even better live than on the recording.
Simultaneously displaying their reverence for tradition and compulsion to innovate, their next tune was a hybrid between old Celtic "mouth music" (something akin to Irish scatting as best I could tell), and old school beat-boxing. The beat-boxing was provided by Adam Matta, a friend they made through their collaboration with Luminescent Orchestrii in New York. Matta returned to the stage periodically throughout the night, with his most impressive contribution being a "trumpet" solo (performed convincingly without a trumpet!) during the 20's style blues romp "Why Don't You Do Right," which Giddens admitted she learned from Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The Drops kept the music up-tempo for the remaining songs which included "Oh Cindy Gal," complete with some raucous, percussive "bone dancing" courtesy of Flemons. Next was the crowd-pleasing "Hit 'Em Up Style" before ending the set with a barn-burning sing along of "Hi Ho Fiddle I Day." Of course, the crowd was not about to let them leave on such an energetic note without at least one encore. They returned for a couple of acapella tunes to ease the crowd home, "Travelin' Shoes" and then "Read 'Em, John." It was a beautiful ending to one of the best nights of live music I've experienced in some time. If you haven't seen these guys live yet, do yourself a favor and make sure you hit their next live gig. You can see some upcoming tour dates here.
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.