Not many modern bands can claim that the music they play spans more than 150 years in the annals of American history, but the Carolina Chocolate Drops's double sold-out shows last night at Mucky Duck oscillated smoothly between early 2000s hits and songs as old as "Dixie." And for a band who makes such frequent use of primitive instruments and early Americana music, the Chocolate Drops come together as a highly polished three-piece, even in spite of equipment problems. This group is so much more than just a string and jug band.
Like a lot of music, Aftermath first learned of the Carolina Chocolate Drops thanks to an in-depth Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross in advance of their trip to Austin for SxSW 2010. Previously, they played Houston at iFest 2008 and in the five years the band has been together (they met at a gathering for Black folk musicians) they gathered a sizable fanbase and tons of critical acclaim.
Both shows were sold out and standing room only last night, and the line to get in to the 9:30 performance stretched into the back parking lot of the Duck. When the band finally took the stage, Don Flemons promised the audience "We're gonna play you some good old-time material" before launching into fellow North Carolinian Etta Baker's tune "Peace Behind the Bridge." Several times throughout the night they played songs taught to them by Joe Thompson, the elderly black folk musician who helped school the trio in traditional string-band music.
For an example of the group's depth, one only need to watch between each song as they traded instruments, and Aftermath tried to keep a list of the ad lib instruments played, everything from the bones (actual cattle rib bones, which Flemons was also selling at the merch table), the kazoo, the jug, the quills and the mouth like a muted trumpet.
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The band, who walks the line between minstrel and memorial, even payed homage to early blackface performer Dan Emmitt by covering "The Boatman's Dance," followed immediately by a sultry version of "Why Don't You Do Right" that would make even Peggy Lee jealous. During this number the room was absolutely silent while opera-trained singer Rhiannon Giddens did her thing.
The band's best moments where during their fiery dance numbers. It was a shame the Duck was packed to the feathers because songs like "Georgia Buck", their rendition of June and Johnny's "Jackson" (even more spiteful than the original) and their hit "Cornbread and Butterbeans" made the crowd want to move. Giddens, who is married to an Irishman and studied traditional Gaelic music, and Justin Robinson burned on fiddle and banjo during "Black Annie". (Click here for an example of just how awesome their version of the song is -- they're performing at Merlefest and Giddens is several months pregnant. Then click here to see their mentor, 90-year-old Joe Thompson, playing it.)
Flemons has clearly done his share of musical and genealogical research. During the show he named-dropped Lightin' Hopkins, talked about visiting Blind Willie Johnson's grave in Beaumont, and even name-dropped the Lomax family.
"I've got to know more about my father and grandfather's past, and he grew up in Pineland, Texas." he said. "I've always enjoyed the music of East Texas."