Carolina Chocolate Drops & Birds Of Chicago Enervate Westhampton April 3 2014
Two great parallel groups with female lead singers/multi-instrumentalists highlighted this evening of music. The Chocolate Drops have been around for about a decade now with CD’s produced by the likes of Buddy Miller and Joe Henry (and T-Bone Burnett will produce their next 2014 release) and awards including a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album 2010 ‘Genuine Negro Jig.’ Their energy is very high and the music eclectic and varied – – from Tom Waits to old-time black North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson to traditional sources. Lead singer Rhiannon Giddens even did a version of Hank Williams’ ‘Please Don’t Make Me Love You,’ that was suggested to the group by a fan. She encourages this, as she imagines the Chocolate Drops at this point as ‘a collective’ that is spreading its wings as it passes thru time and space, gaining and losing new and old members, embracing the music of the world.
But first and foremost the Chocolate Drops really are purveyors of music that comes from slavery and the banjo, which she informs us was the primary form of music in America for about fifty years in the latter 19th century, including black-face minstrel performances. The banjo comes from Africa, fashioned from gourds and strings – – it arrived in the Americas in the Caribbean with slavery and then migrated north. Eventually Earl Scruggs and white America picked up on it, but before that it was the central instrument of plantation music. Ms. Giddens did a rousing version of ‘Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man?’ that typified the Drops’ use of the banjo, and energized the mostly white sold-out crowd that showed up last night.
One fantastic version of ‘Snowden’s Jig’ was performed last night with Ms. Giddens playing the violin/fiddle, Hubby Jenkins banging the base drum, Rowan Korbett on a sort of box drum that he sat on as he played it (similar to the percussionist who accompanies Jesse Harris, if you’ve been lucky enough to see him), and cellist Malcolm Parson playing the bones, if I remember correctly. That was one hypnotic simple infectious piece that could have grooved on for an hour or two like an Indian raga as far as I was concerned. That is also the same title tune, subtitled ‘Genuine Indian Jig’ for their Grammy winning 2010 album/CD. Ms. Giddens also did a solo-voiced two-part a cappella piece in Scottish gaelic that also drew loud cheers and applause at its climactic crescendo sudden-ending. First part re a wedding; second part: re dance.
There was a great sing-along version of you can hide from your mama but ‘You Can’t Hide From God’ that had everybody going; similarly with ‘Going Down The Road Feeling Bad.’ with the fiddle and banjo highlighted, plus ‘the bones’ also very prominent, providing staccato creative percussion in many of the songs from the start to the finish of the show. The drums were ‘taken away’ from the slaves when they were shipped over from Africa, Ms. Giddens informed us, but ‘the bones’ survived. These are made of various hard objects from bones to wood and held like chopsticks or castanets as the player flips and smacks and snaps them around to get their driving punchy effects into the songs. In a few songs the men in the Drops were playing duos and trios of percussion with the bones.
Mr. Parson’s cello playing and using the cello as a bass instrument that he plucked with his long fingers also was very unique to the music provided. An apparent staple of the Chocolate Drops’ performances is ‘ ‘Cornbread and Butterbeans’ and you ‘cross the table, eating them beans and making love as long as I am able’ . . . with the fiddle and the banjo jangling along, makes me hear Sonny Terry and Brownie Maghee, from a few generations ago, who were extensively recorded on the Folkways label by Alan Lomax, one of our crucial music archivists. I’ll see if I can you some links for a video or three that best typify last night’s performance. The band’s encore song was a rousing version of ‘Read ‘Em John’ – which the band performed to encourage sharing information and literature once read, to be shared with the world.
‘Birds Of Chicago’ came onstage first and did a startling version of ‘(The Wind Shakes The) Barley’ featuring Allison Russell’s soaring stupendous voice in an a cappella format. She, like Rhiannon Giddens, is a fantastic singer and multi-instrumentalist with an even wider armamentarium of instruments she played, including the banjo, fiddle, clarinet, percussion, guitar. Plus she probably has been singing longer than Ms. Giddens has, with a more powerful greater-ranged set of vocal cords. She and JT Nero lead the group, which is based in Chicago. They had a folky sound last night, with some lovely perfect spare electric guitar playing from John Faulhaber. Each and every note was placed to highlight and clarify lyric and melody, it seemed. The bassist was also spot-on, providing some additional bottom with his foot bopping an apparatus that was the drum for the five song set. I loved Birds of Chicago. Their tunes are modern, folky, quirky, spiritual, poetic, and very very fine.
Overall another great show at the Westhampton Performing Arts Center. Same show scheduled to arrive in Wilmington, Delaware Saturday nite April 5, 2014, and then onto other locales in the southeast USA. Feelies April 26 could be a great show upcoming in Westhampton. Check their classic tune “It’s Only Life” to get a taste.
Meanwhile here are some links to some videos of these two wonderful exciting energetic bands: