Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops drop a music history lesson on the Straz Center in Tampa
Stepping into the Ferguson Hall at the Straz Center on Friday night meant a serenade of strings and an exercise of history commencing at exactly 7:30 p.m. The Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops didn’t waste any time on an opener. The foursome came out full-steed, emanating an unabashed simplicity in their delivery of back-to-back renditions of allegorical arrangements that breathed life into melodies long forgotten.
Hailing from North Carolina, the all African-American string band has a no-frills, causal and down-to-earth vibe. Originally a trio, they enlisted a fourth for this tour, Haitian cellist Leyla McCalla, who also was featured on their recent Grammy-nominated album Leaving Eden.
They each sat in a chair, facing the audience, flanked by their various instruments. McCalla (cello, banjo) was on the left, Dom Flemons (guitar, harmonica, banjo, bones, snare drum) in the middle, with Rhiannon Giddens (banjo, fiddle, kazoo, jug) next to him and Hubby Jenkins (banjo, guitar, mandolin, bones) on the right end. All of them contributed vocals.
Before most songs, one of them would relay the history behind the song, details about the instruments used or another element that was meaningful and might otherwise be overlooked.
Maybe it was the nod to Ethel Waters or Joe Thompson, but I quickly learned this candid quartet were ambassadors to the ancestry of music. They reached into a deep catalog of multi-cultural covers, from traditional Haitian Creole and Gaelic songs to roots (Charlie Poole), gospel (Thomas A. Dorsey), blues and country (Jimmie Rogers), thus creating a highly engaging and historical atmosphere for a live show. Plus, they shared information about their own lives (including Gidden’s six-week old son, a shout out to Taco Bus and a visit to Hulk Hogan’s restaurant, Hogan's Beach).
Their spectrum of specialities included Giddens playing a replica of an 1840s minstrel banjo and sharing its (sometimes ugly) roots in bridging African-American and European-American cultures through music. Jenkins discussed and demonstrated how to play the bones, which he deemed the world’s oldest instrument. I’d never heard them played before; they sounded like a cross of castanets and a horse gallop, but made great percussion layers, as well as provided from some comedic back and forth playing between Flemons and Jenkins.
Through these magnificent tidbits, anecdotes and musical variety shone a real passion for American roots music. Gidden’s diverse vocal style fluxed from a sassy blues song (No Man’s Mama) to singing in Gaelic to the popular pop cover Hit 'Em Up Style.
Some songs were solely string instrumentals harvesting complex layers, or hand-clapping jigs with the audience being asked to chime in on the chorus. Highlights included the tender lullaby-esque, Leaving Eden; My Little Lady, showcasing Flemons’ sopranos; Boodle-De-Bum-Bum; and the a capella closer Read 'Em John. Despite audience shout-out requests, they skipped Cornbread and Butterbeans.
The two-hour set (with an intermission) seemed to serve more as a tribute and honor to roots music rather than a concert purely to entertain. Show-goers came away knowing more about string music, the history behind certain songs, instruments and musicians that have come and gone. This personable and informative approach lent a sort of public service perspective to their music and identity as a traditional string band; to not forget those that came before, and how they continue to shape what comes after. Needless to say, the multiple standing ovations were well deserved. Bravo.
-- Stephanie Bolling, tbt*