There is a new band on the “Must See Every Possible Chance I Can Get” list. I had the privileged of seeing the Carolina Chocolate Drops two weeks ago as part of the Prescott Park Concert Series in Portsmouth, NH. There was never a good time to get a drink or hit the bathroom (usually marked by a band saying, “we’re gonna slow it down and do a number off our upcoming album…”) because every song had something unique about. I don’t want to get into nitty gritty details about the whole concert because it was 2 weeks ago and I don’t remember the song by song breakdown of the evening. What I do remember is seeing four extraordinarily talented musicians who all had complete mastery over multiple instruments, great voices, and an in-depth knowledge of the history behind each song they performed.
First and foremost, here’s an intro to the band:
Each member of the band had a unique style and each took turns as the focal point of the show. Dom Flemmons sounds AND looks like he was dropped out of the sky from deep North Carolina, circa 1927. The suspenders, straw hat, skills on the jug, and laid-back-with-a-twist voice allow the concert-goer to let go of themselves just enough to entertain the idea that this might be the case. Rhiannona Giddens has complete command of the stage, and her voice is the most perfect mix of sweetness and power I have ever heard. She also plays banjo or violin on most songs, begging the question: How does one person have this much talent. If rock ‘n’ roll was a spice, Hubby Jenkins would be sprinkling it over everything the band served up. The songs he led were based on drinking a lot, meeting women, yelling, and highlighted by standing on chairs and amps while he absolutely ripped on the banjo. Leyla McCalla tours with the band and her contributions with the cello and back-up vocals were a lot like nice flowers on the dinner table. You could have a nice meal without them, you may not pay full attention to them when they’re there, but your meal is much more enjoyable because of them.
The best way to illustrate the uniqueness of each song is simply to outline a handful of highlights from the show to give everyone an idea of just how much range this band has. The night I saw them they played two sets, the first being more historically oriented, while the later set was more focused on just laying it down.
Early in the night Giddens took out a replica of the first banjos ever played. She said they were originally peddled during traveling minstrel shows in the South done in blackface. I remember her quote after revealing this clear as day, “While the history of blackface is a sad, unfortunate one, it’s important to extract the beauty in it. It (blackface) was bad, but it wasn’t all bad, and it’s important in life to try to find good in as many places as possible.” She then started off with a super slow jam, and was eventually accompanied by Jenkins and Flemmons both on the bones. The song ended in at a furious pace with both bones players playing the same thing at the same time while Giddens and the crowd played and clapped faster and faster pushing the duo to pick up the pace, but they never fell out of sync no matter how quick the tempo. I don’t get goosebumps at concerts often, but when I do, it’s at moments like this.
Right after that, they went into an Ethel Waters song, Ain’t No Man’s Momma Now, where Giddens seemed to be skipping on the light swing rhythm the rest of the band was putting down. The transition from the minstrel shows of the 1860s to the speakeasies of the 1920s was so seamless I didn’t realize it was that drastic until the set break. The only other concert I’ve seen range like that before was Taj Mahal, who, not coincidentally, is on my M. S. E. P. C. I. C. G. list.
The highlight of the night, if there was ONE, was the pair of Scottish Gaelic songs played towards the end of the night. Who knew that a) there was a huge Scottish influence in North Carolina, and b) Giddens, among her many other talents, could sing in fluent Scottish Gaelic? The first song was slow and foot tapping. The second song turned into a foot stomping frenzy with Giddens singing at the top of her lungs, the crowd on their feet dancing and clapping, and Flemmons banging the large bass drum which had been lurking behind the band all night waiting to make its appearance.
There are still many more highlights being left out, but on a night like this, the only way to fully appreciate how great the moment was, was to be there.
A while back, I realized I can no longer say any concert is “the best I’ve ever seen,” but I can say the Carolina Chocolate Drops was the most unique. They are now on a short list of acts I will see any and every chance I can. August 31st, Bethlehem, NH. Who else is in?