Carolina Chocolate Drops
Venue: Meymandi Concert Hall
Date/Time: Friday, September 21, 2012 | 8 p.m.
General Public: $39, $44, $49
Members: $34, $39, $44
Photo by: Crackerfarm
Tickets are still available for tonight's concert, and can be purchased at the door beginning at 7 p.m.! Please leave yourself extra time to find parking tonight, as there are many other events happening in downtown Raleigh tonight, too - more information
North Carolina’s own Grammy winning Carolina Chocolate Drops kick off PineCone’s Down Home Concerts at the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts. Their latest release, Leaving Eden, has received widespread critical acclaim, and they’ve also penned a tune titled “Daughter’s Lament” for The Hunger Games soundtrack.
Leaving Eden is a record of original compositions, covers, and traditional songs produced by Buddy Miller. The current band line-up features founding members Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens with Hubby Jenkins, and New Orleans-based cellist Leyla McCalla also joins them on their latest tour. The Drops formed after founding members Flemons and Giddens met Piedmont fiddler Joe Thompson at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC in 2005. They traveled to his home once a week to learn from him and jam with him, and they started performing as a tribute to Thompson, a chance to bring his music back out of the house again and into dance halls and public places. Today, their music carries on Thompson’s old-time Piedmont music legacy and proves that the music of the past is as alive and vibrant today as it ever was. Join PineCone for a night celebrating North Carolina Piedmont music!
In the summer and fall of 2005, the nascent band known as the Carolina Chocolate Drops—at that time a trio composed of Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson—were spending their Thursday nights learning old-time music from fiddler Joe Thompson, in Mebane, North Carolina. Thompson was an influential African American fiddler with who played traditional music in the Piedmont for nearly eight decades. February of 2011 found the Chocolate Drops—or “Drops” as they're known among fans—accepting the Best Traditional Album Grammy Award for Genuine Negro Jig, which blends traditional African American string band music with contemporary rhythms and influences.
With Genuine Negro Jig, the Drops proved that the old-time fiddle and banjo-based music they’d so scrupulously researched and passionately performed could be a living, breathing, ever-evolving sound. Starting with material culled from the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, they sought to freshly interpret this work, not merely recreate it, highlighting the central role African-Americans played in shaping our nation’s popular music from its beginnings more than a century ago. The virtuosic trio’s approach was provocative and revelatory. Their concerts, The New York Times declared, were “an end-to-end display of excellence… They dip into styles of Southern black music from the 1920s and ’30s—string-band music, jug-band music, fife and drum, early jazz—and beam their curiosity outward. They make short work of their instructive mission and spend their energy on things that require it: flatfoot dancing, jug playing, shouting.”
On Leaving Eden, their 2012 Nonesuch release produced by Nashville stalwart Buddy Miller—the go-to guy for artists ranging from Robert Plant to Emmylou Harris—and recorded in his home studio, the Carolina Chocolate Drops illustrate their own adaptability to growth and change as the original lineup expands from three to five players for this recording and their new repertoire incorporates more blues, jazz, and folk balladry alongside brilliantly rendered string-band tunes. The group’s founding members Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, both singers and multi-instrumentalists, were used to working together (CCD had evolved out of their previous group, Sankofa Strings) but they needed back-up for their second full-length Nonesuch disc. Help came in the form of three new players: beat-boxer Adam Matta, introduced to the band by their friends in NYC’s Luminescent Orchestrii (with whom they’d released a live EP on Nonesuch in 2011), Brooklyn-based guitarist, banjo player and singer Hubby Jenkins, and New Orleans-based cellist Leyla McCalla, both of whom the band had befriended via the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which helps to support elder roots artists and to encourage young talent. Jenkins is now a full-time member of the group; Matta, after touring with CCD throughout 2011, will make occasional guest appearances; and McCalla will round out CCD’s 2012 touring line-up.
In the six years between their formation and their breakout success, the Drops performed at the Mount Airy Fiddler's Convention, MerleFest, and with famed bluesman Taj Mahal throughout Europe. They have been featured on Garrison Keillor's A Prarie Home Companion and in Denzel Washington's 2007 film The Great Debators. They were the first black string band to grace the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, in a performance that Opry host Marty Stuart called “a healing moment” for the venerable institution.
Flemons, Giddens, and Robinson initially connected at Appalachian State University's first Black Banjo Gathering, an event designed to recognize the important African American musical contributions to traditional string band music. Realizing that their combination was a powerful one, they came together to form a band, and christened themselves the Carolina Chocolate Drops as a tip of the hat to popular 1930s black string band the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. They began learning from Thompson, and performing around the Piedmont region, in the process honing their skills and their fiery live performance style. After their performance at the 2006 Shakori Hills Festival, they worked with the Music Maker Foundation, which released their albums Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind and Carolina Chocolate Drops & Joe Thompson, a collaboration with their mentor.
Rolling Stone describes the Drops' style as “dirt-floor dance electricity,” an acknowledgment of the band's melding of such far reaching elements as jug band music, Piedmont blues, and hip hop. The Drops—which now feature Giddens, Flemons, and recent recruits Hubby Jenkins, Leyla McCalla, and Adam Matta—are one of the best-known and most acclaimed bands to come out of the Piedmont in recent years.
Flemons points out: “There’s a new diversity that comes from the new ensemble. My thought process of how I put together songs for the Carolina Chocolate Drops now is more like working with a jazz group. I could make it work in any sort of way. Based on the players that you have, you can do different things with the arrangements. It was helpful that Hubby also played guitar. Up to then, I was the only one in the group who worked with chords. Rhiannon plays her instruments melodically instead of around chords and the rhythm of the chords. I had been working on ‘Mahalla’ [an arrangement of a joyfully upbeat piece from spoon-wielding South African slide guitarist and YouTube phenomenon Hannes Coetzee] for a while on my own, just on the banjo, and I would have liked to have guitar on it too, but I couldn’t get anyone to back me up. Hubby happened to know the song as well, so that track came out of Hubby being there. Adam brought a great, pumping bass vocal part to ‘Po’ Black Sheep,’ and ‘Country Girl’ also has Adam’s particular flavor—along with Leyla’ s cello.”
The title track, “Leaving Eden”—written by Giddens’ friend and fellow Greensboro, North Carolina resident, Laurelynn Dossett—had long been on Giddens’ to-do list, but until now it hadn’t found a place in CCD’s set. With this new lineup, its time had come, and the song became the veritable centerpiece of the album. McCalla’s cello lends gravity to this elegiac number about the falling fortunes of a mill town, sung with plainspoken eloquence by Giddens, one of several stunning vocal performances from this Oberlin Conservatory-trained singer.
Giddens brings a hip hop-style and declamatory flair to her self-penned “Country Girl,” egged on by Matta’s beat-boxing; she takes an overtly bluesy turn on Ethel Waters’ wry 1920’s-era confession, “No Man’s Mama;” and concludes the album with a powerful a capella rendering of “Pretty Bird” by the late Hazel Dickens, the West Virginian bluegrass singer-songwriter and activist (and spouse of roots music champion Mike Seeger). Giddens observes, “It’s not in the style I usually sing in. I first heard that song about seven years ago. I was in Scotland and I checked this CD out of the Edinburgh library, and I thought it was awesome. This song is not one I perform a lot because it’s so intense; I’ve only done it on stage a handful of times. Hazel had just passed recently, so I pulled the song out and said, ‘Hey, Buddy, how about this?’”
Though often striking out in new directions, CCD return to familiar turf with tracks like “Riro’s House,” a traditional piece they’d learned from Thompson, and “West End Blues,” paying tribute to the venerable Piedmont guitarist and banjo player Etta Baker. Once again they break out such unique instrumentation as jugs and bones; Giddens records for the first time with a 5-string cello (or bass) banjo, while Flemons employs his quills, a pan-pipe instrument of African origin with a distinctive Irish pennywhistle lilt to it.
“We want to remain true to the roots of how we started,” Giddens explains. “We’re always going to have a string band on our records. But we don’t want to just do Piedmont style fiddle-banjo-guitar tunes; there’s more to our musical life than that. We grow in a healthy, slow way that reflects our true development as musicians and as a band.” Over the past year, CCD have played to a remarkably wide range of concert-goers, with appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival, the Grand Ole Opry, the Cambridge Folk Festival in the U.K., and even as part of the Dave Matthews Band Caravan, among many other events. Giddens adds, “We’ve held on to our original fans and we’ve now got a lot more younger people coming to our shows and more people of color, which is fabulous. We’ve been working off that actively, doing stand-up shows where we cut the talking down a bit, keep the tunes coming, and get everybody dancing. And we still have our shows where we sit and talk about the material, do our slow waltzes and stuff like that. It keeps everything flowing.”
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