Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops at Somerville Theatre

Carolina Chocolate Drops, live at the Somerville Theatre, January 23, 2010
By JON GARELICK  |  January 29, 2010

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The Carolina Chocolate Drops introduced the penultimate song of their Saturday night Somerville Theatre show as from 2001, "which is about 100 years ago in pop music." That would be "Hit 'Em Up Style," the Dallas Austin hit for Blu Cantrell, in this case performed Piedmont style, with banjo, fiddle and . . . beat box.

"Hit 'Em Up Style" was just a minor incongruity in this show by a band whose whole career is predicated on it: young African-Americans playing the kind of old-time "hillbilly" music that to the uninformed is usually associated with white Appalachia. So the show -- like all the Chocolate Drops shows and their handful of albums -- was a minor tutorial in the African-American strain of music from the Piedmont foothills of the Carolinas. It was also foot-stomping, hand-clapping, sing-along fun. "This is porch music, community music, meant to be sung along with, played along with... a group thing" said singer, banjoist, and fiddler Rhiannon Giddens.

This was nothing if not an educated crowd -- they knew the songs, if not from the band's albums, then from the same records the band learned them off of: "Cornbread and Butterbeans," "Trouble In Your Mind," "Jack of Diamonds," "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad." Ancient blues, jazz, and bluegrass, jigs and breakdowns and stomps. "Tell us about the frailing on the guitar!" yelled one audience member between songs to dobro player Dom Flemons. He obliged explaining how he adapted banjo-style strumming to suit the band's music.

Meanwhile, there was all manner of back-porch hijinks. Giddens traded fiddle duties with Justin Robinson, who switched off jug-bass with Flemons and accompanied himself on auto-harp to a timeless ballad original. Flemons occasionally danced in his seat playing "bones" in each hand and during one number flipped his guitar over his head. During the ancient jazz number "Salty Dog," Giddens grabbed Flemons's pork-pie hat and stepped off to the side of the band's folding chairs to dance a Charleston. The three took turns singing, harmonized and traded verses, and finished the night with an a cappella version of the Christian death ballad "Travelin' Shoes." Giddens was the most formidable vocalist, but this ensemble has any number weapons in its arsenal. And if "Hit 'Em Up Style" (on their Nonesuch debut, Genuine Negro Jig, due February 16) is any indication, they can adapt just about anything to their style, and make a 2001 pop song sound like it really is 100 years old -- and brand new.

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