Saturday, January 12, 2008

Carolina Chocolate Drops + Catherine Russell @ Joe's Pub 1/12/2008

Part I: Carolina Chocolate Drops
Part II: Catherine Russell here

I have to say this was one of the odder experiences I've had going to see a live show--but odd in a kind of weird fuzzy I-hit-my-elbow aftershock kind of way. I've been excited to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops perform since rock journalist Kandia Crazy Horse gave them a shout out in her interview with Rob Fields at Bold As Love. I hustled back from visiting and recording with a friend up North I hadn't seen in months in order to get there to see them. As a result I had banjo and luggage in tow. The first question I got asked as I queued up behind some folks who turned out to be with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) was if I was one of the performers--I said no "No, I'm just carrying my stuff."--"A logical question" came the reply. Well not exactly; I really wouldn't want to be showing up for a gig at a supper club 45 minutes before the gig started because that would likely mean I'd have missed the sound check. Read: People are seated and eating and drinking; you don't have access to the stage until the set starts. Your set is 40 minutes, and you don't have either your instruments, mics, or sound levels set up. Ouch. Never a good thing. (above right, Carolina Chocolate Drops, l-r: Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson)

But hey, these are the things with which audiences aren't supposed to have concern themselves, and perhaps even some arts presenters leave these details up to their house crew. Next I was at the door and one of the Joe's Pub staffers asked me if I was one of the musicians. When I said no, he smiled and told me if I said yes, that I'd get in for free--gee I hope so! (When they reached this staffer, the white and middle-aged couple behind me dryly intoned that they were among the performers, eliciting a chuckle from the staffer--if they hadn't looked so surburban maybe.) I responded jokingly that I thought once the musicians got on the stage my ruse would be revealed. Hmm, maybe not. After both artists' sets, I was departing luggage and banjo in hand, and someone passing so quickly in the other direction I didn't even see them briefly clasped my arm and called out, "great show!" I actually stopped in mid-step (which is harder than it sounds when you're carrying a banjo in a hard case), and shook my head calling back in half-voice (sotto) with a rueful half smile, "Not me." And no, I don't look anything like two African American men or one woman that comprise the Carolina Chocolate Drops, nor do I look like the European American male musician, the skilled and amiable Matt Munisteri, who was playing banjo and guitar with Catherine Russell.

It probably won't be surprising to discover that the audience was 99% European American. But I was surprised. I was so sure--what with the Oprah appearance at the end of last year, and their appearance in The Great Debaters, and their four songs on the soundtrack--that African American roots music aficionados would be in full effect. But I didn't even need a whole hand to count the black folks in the room, and the show was sold out. I didn't have a table reserved, and had to stand at the bar (no they don't have bar stools at Joe's Pub--the "pub" being short for "Public" as opposed to referencing a drinking establishment where everyone knows your name). (left, the new cover for the re-released, Dona Got A Ramblin' Mind from the Music Maker Relief Foundation)

The place kept filling, with people arriving for their table reservations up until 5 minutes before the show. A few exasperated people who had expected to be able to come in at 6:40 for a 7:00pm show and get a table, milled around the bar area. Well, maybe under regular conditions tables might still be available, but APAP was in town. It's a huge conference. One of the attendees perks is being able to get into shows at no or low cost. These Arts Presenter Showcases are a big deal for the performers as well; in one shot they get to perform in front of art presenters who control the booking schedules and purse strings for arts venues across the United States. No small opportunity that, which was clear from the laser beam energy with which the CCD's manager was moving through and scanning the crowd, presumably for VIPs he would need to connect the CCD with during the post-show autographing and public greeting.

At 6:59pm the lights dimmed and at 7pm (on the dot) the Chocolate Drops hit the stage. The group is comprised of Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, who both are natives of the hills region of the North Carolina Piedmont, and Dom Flemons who is from Phoenix, Arizona. The three met at the Black Banjo Gathering that occurred in 2005 at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, and apparently had instant chemistry. Flemons moved to North Carolina and the group was born. OK, well first Flemons dedicated himself to playing banjo starting when he was 20 years old (he's around 25 now), three years before he met his bandmates. Giddens had studied opera at Oberlin, and then got deeply involved in the contra dancing community, and Robinson was a classical-trained violinist who heard an NPR report about Joe Thompson, reputedly the last black string player of his generation who lived and still lives in Mebane, N.C. Thompson was a featured presenter/performer at the black banjo gathering and eventually became mentor to the three who visited him weekly to learn songs. My understanding is that this apprenticeship model is typical in string/roots music--younger/emerging musicians seek out older ones and learn songs from these musical elders by ear. Hence the importance of preservation efforts and new generations of players connecting with older ones before the latter pass on. The other option is learning songs from recorded archives such as those created by the Lomax family and the Smithsonian. But this doesn't afford newer musicians the opportunity of the more traditional apprenticeship. (above left the Chocolate Drops with mentor Joe Thompson; photo Lissa Gotwals)

Flemons, Giddings, and Robinson are each highly talented, energetic, and charming performers. Flemons, who plays 4-string, 5-string, 6-string banjo and jug, clearly possesses the most overtly gregarious stage persona, and throughout was working the some of the country vaudevillian, twirling his resonator guitar in his lap, and then playing out a rhythm on the back and twirling it front again in time to give a hard emphasizing strum to accent a beat. A key showcase for his effusive style was the song "Viper Mad," different versions of which appear on Flemons' and the CCD's respective MySpace pages. Robinson was the most laid-back, almost shy, of the three. I noticed in this performance and on YouTube videos of their performances that Robinson is the most internal singer of the three--he seems to be singing from the back of his throat which keeps his volume lower and his voice somewhat muted. Meanwhile, Giddens alternated between the two poles. An animated and personable entertainer, who plays fiddle and 5-string banjo, at one point she gave us some contra dancing and high stepping moves and in another ably handled simultaneously belting out a strong soprano vocal and fiddling into the same mic (no easy feat since the two instruments were claiming some of the same frequency range, despite their timbral distinctions). In other moments she assumed more of a more supportive role, backing up her bandmates. (above right, the Carolina Chocolate Drops playing with Thompson)

They came out and asked folks how they were doing and when they got a reticent response, Giddens asked again this time getting more energy from the crowd. She announced that they were the Carolina Chocolate Drops and they were going to give us some music from North Carolina--one whoop came from the crowd (what, only one Carolina native in the whole audience?). The CCD came on strong from that first song, which I'd like to say was "Black-Eyed Daisy" (Flemons: Resonator guitar & harmonica; Giddens: Fiddle; Robinson: Fiddle)and didn't let the crowd go. After that first song was done there were plenty of whooping hollers from the crowd. Subsequently Giddens encouraged that crowd acknowledging though she knew they were in New York where everyone is cool and wears the fashions "we copy down south, but feel free to do what you feel like doing--singing along, dancing, bopping your head, or just listen if you feel like it." At which point Flemons interjected "Wait a minute, we're not doing the avant garde," at which the crowd laughed. He continued, "We're all a community here. So do what you want to do but make sure we're all together." After the subway rumbled past ("Something's going on down there" commented Giddens with a tinge of playful wonder) the Drops performed the rollicking Joe Thompson tune "Georgie Buck" which might be a good PSA soundtrack for health-motivated caution in southern cuisine (Georgie Buck is dead/ Don't put no shortening in my bread). Afterwards it seemed like wisps of smoke ought to be coming off the stage, or that the floor boards should be buckling from the energy summoned by their playing. The Joe's Pub lighting tech was doing some nice work accentuating the rhythmic high times of their tunes, and in between songs Robinson looked up and noted with wittily dry southern sincerity, "The lighting changes make us feel professional" (I don't know if folks from other regions of the U.S. can carry off the dry delivery concurrent with the actual sincerity--but it makes me nostalgic). After this came "Don't Get Trouble in Your Mind" and the aforementioned "Viper Mad." These were followed by a short history lesson from Robinson on the origins of drum and fife music and "Rickett's Hornpipe" which again featured some enthused musicianship from Flemons on a shoulder-strapped snare drum played with brushes and on which the Chocolate Drops substituted fiddle for fife. Robinson had lead vocal on "Jack o' Diamonds" which they adapted from a Lomax archive recording. They ended the set with the same song that ends their latest CD, "Sourwood Mountain" which Giddens repeated for us again slowly noting that a number of audiences have had some trouble making out the title through their Carolina accents. It was a hell of a way to go out, and the crowd was on its feet giving them a standing ovation, which they definitely deserved.

So it pains me to say that nevertheless, in the end, the show felt like the showcase it was, as opposed to an actual show, which I sense is the better circumstance under which to see the CCD. The Joe's Pub set was a serious--here's all we can do and then some--presentation, but it didn't exactly feel like a regular concert date for the group. Still the fact that they are individually all rather young (Giddens is the "eldest" born in 1977, while her bandmates were both born in 1982), and they've only been together as a group for two years, makes their collective acumen and professionalism, not to mention chemistry, all rather astounding. I personally missed the range of work represented on their latest CD Dona Got A Ramblin' Mind, no mid-tempo tunes like, "Sally Ann" or "Short Life of Trouble" where Robinson opens up his voice, or the haunting "Little Margaret" or "Another Man Done Gone" both of which feature Gidden's soprano. The music, while excellent and fun, was all fast and faster rollicking, head-bobbing and foot-stomping tunes. As a final offering, their arrangement of Blu Cantrell's "Hit Em Up Style (Oops)" demonstrated their connection with modern music and the possible connections between the fiddle-ready string-evocative samples (such as the one that loops throughout the background of Cantrell's cut) and percussive elements hip hop, which can be played out on the percussive stringed-drum of the banjo. They had the predominantly white multi-generational group clapping along with Flemons who led the hand-claps, on the beat. Bringing home the connections between wronged hip hop shorties, maligned early 20th century hilltop gals, the exclusive predominantly white upper middle-class late-20th-century first wives club members, and everyone else. The Chocolate Drops gave a heartfelt acknowledgment of their mentor, Thompson, and announced he had recently been recognized with a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award, and not posthumously as is so often the case. Thompson turned 89 in December.

Granted much of the music they're mining is toe-tapping dance music, but that's not all of their musical focus. I'd be interested in hearing them again at a regular gig; goodness knows they're playing out enough. A November 2007 Boston Globe story on the group indicated they were booked into 2009. Their website has them playing back to back dates until the lighter scheduling of May/June of 2008, and then fully booked again in July and August. So if they're going to be at a venue near you, run do not walk to get your tickets while they're still affordable and available.

At the Joe's Pub show they mentioned that they were touring in a 12 passenger van with all their gear and merchandise, which was a step up from their previous minivan situation. Nevertheless, the schedule sounds grueling, and while I understand the import of taking advantage of the present moment with all the recognition they are getting as the only African American string band out there, and not just with the ethnic identity question, but the fact that each of them is an accomplished musician who is seriously committed to this area of music history and performance. Add to that the spotlight from positive reviews for their latest release Dona Got A Ramblin Mind, and the exposure on Oprah, and The Great Debaters, and it is a hot moment. But you just hope they can take it all in, enjoy it, and not get burnt out with the heavy performance/travel schedule and increasing demands on their time that are the flip side of increased recognition. (DGARM is actually a re-release through the The Music Maker Relief Foundation which has its own label, a small roster of artists, and is committed to helping "the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of southern music gain recognition and meet their day to day needs.")

Endnote I:
Boston Globe article about the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Independent Weekly article about the Carolina Chocolate Drops and mentor Joe Thompson.
• Susan Budig's Carolina Chocolate Drops profile on Minnesota's Gather community blog.
• Website for the documentary film, Black String Revival in which the Carolina Chocolate Drops and other African American string revival performers and scholars appear.

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At 11:25 PM, Blogger BronzeBuckaroo said...

Carolina Chocolate Drops, I like them. I really don't know what else to tell you except that I wish I could have been in the audience with you that night. Maybe my words don't count with me being a nerd and all, but their is an audience for these glorious sounds among black folk.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger audiologo said...

Thanks for the comments bronzebuckaroo. (There are a lot of nerds, black and otherwise identified, out there, some fronting as something/someone else! So your vote definitely counts) There is definitely an audience among black folks for this music. In this case the APAP folks had already reserved 30-50% of the seats,and it was an Artist Showcase. So I don't think a lot of advance publicity went out beyond particular music sectors--and it still was a sold out show (but it was a sold out double bill for both The CCD and vocalist Catherine Russell. People I know who would have wanted to be there weren't, and some didn't even know about the show, which was a daggum shame, for real.

At 7:26 PM, Blogger Red Hawk Foodie said...

Hey, this is Justin, one of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Appreciate the love.

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