I spent Wednesday evening at the Krannert Performing Arts center and at the feet of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They were charming. They played as a quartet with the three full-time members (Dom Flemmons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Hubby Jenkins) and cellist Leyla McCalla, who is joining them on this tour. CCD was in town for two days. On Tuesday, they filled one of the Krannert theaters with 800 kids from C-U schools and also spent time attending and speaking in seminars and classrooms around the U of I campus. They even made a stop at WILL radio’s “Live & Local” program for an interview and performance.
The show Wednesday night reflected this same generous spirit. The band played two hour-long sets of tunes that stretched across time, genre, and style — from 1850s minstrelsy to a reimagined version of the 2001 R&B hit “Hit ’em Up Style” from their 2010 release Genuine Negro Jig. In between those bookends, they artfully traced American folk traditions back and forth across decades and color lines. Flemmons showed his affinity and flare for 20s-era songster jazz and, in the next breath, a similar respect for the old hillbilly fiddler Charlie Poole. Giddens and Flemmons played Carter & Cash’s “Jackson,” a rousing version of the Guthrie classic “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad,” and led at least two call-and-response break-downs, “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind” and “Sourwood Mountain.” And there was dancing! The Krannert theaters make anything other than passive observation a challenge, but slowly over the course of the evening a small but fiery congregate of dancers gathered in front of the stage where they frolicked and twirled while the band responded dialectically in dramatic kazoo-ing and the rhythmic clicking of the bones.
I admit that I was a bit disappointed that the beat-boxing element of the band — present first through original member Justin Robinson’s contribution, and later through Adam Matta’s talent — is not present in the current line-up. A back-beat behind the old-time parlance had a way of giving those old songs a fresh sound and feel. That extra rhythmic pulse has become part of a “signature sound” that I missed. But they made up for it in an interesting way. What surprised me about the evening’s performance was the Chocolate Drops’ movement outside of a purely American tradition. They are beginning to explore the vernacular traditions of several other sites across the globe and, for me, this was the most captivating part of the evening.
Flemmons shared his version of the South American song “Mahalla” that he came across while surfing YouTube. Cellist Leyla McCalla led a lovely version of the Haitian troubadour tune “Rose-Marie.” And then Giddens blew the audience away with a show-stopping compilation of two Gaelic tunes. Her enthusiasm and emotion was enhanced by a later admission that she had been in Indiana most of the day dealing with a family emergency and was fatigued by both that and, no doubt, the fact that she is clearly expecting a baby soon.
In closing, just one small side-observation: Perhaps it’s the Grammy, but the Chocolate Drops have landed in a pretty strong place when considering the large population of older, white folks at the show last night. Who are these people? Are they Krannert season ticket holders? Are they there to see a Grammy Award-winning act play? Are they the same folks who were out at the folk festival a few weekends ago — or, to say it slightly differently, where were all these people during the C-U Folk festival? I’m a big fan of the Chocolate Drops, and I know they have for years been devoted to playing community bluegrass and roots festivals. I’m happy for them. I’m pleased that they have become visible enough to sell out Krannert and likely countless other nice University theaters. It would be nice, I guess, if the support they received last night pushed a little more strongly into the community and if that large audience supported the many wonderful musicians making similar contributions in our vibrant local musical community.
Photos courtesy of Cindy Kitchen.