Carolina Chocolate Drops; August 28, 2010; Orton Park Festival
You know it is SXSW when there are bands playing in your hotel lobby every morning. Well, actually it wasn’t my hotel, I was in the Hilton Garden Inn, but the local public radio station was sponsoring short sets from a handful of bands every morning in the lobby of the Hilton just a block away. I went for Frightened Rabbit and ended up staying for the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I was so impressed with them that I made a mental note to see them again. Of course, that didn’t happen during SXSW, I was too busy stalking Ha Ha Tonka, Califone and Jon Dee Graham for that, but when they played a free show at one of Madison’s terrific outdoor festivals I was there.
I heard several people say tonight was officially the biggest crowd ever at an Orton Park Fest show and I had no trouble believing that. We had gotten there early enough and were standing fairly close to the stage, but by the time they finished their first song a sea of people had filled in around us. It’s easy to think that anyone could have drawn a crowd like this tonight, the weather was perfect and it is free, but I’m inclined to say they showed up for something special. And they got it.
Their music is steeped in history, having spent many hours learning traditional tunes from octogenarian fiddler Joe Thompson in Mebane NC, joining him for his Thursday night jam sessions. Even thought they are so obviously influenced by history, they are definitely a modern band. They did a good job of setting up many of the songs they played with the history behind it. Dom Flemmons and Rhiannon Giddens did most of the talking, while darkly handsome Justin Robinson was more the strong, silent type. The title of their most recent CD Genuine Negro Jig may raise eyebrows but that is the actual name of one of the historic tunes they featured. The impressive thing about CCD is that each of them is ridiculously talented, they handed multiple instruments- banjo, fiddle, jug- back and forth during their set. Robinson and Giddens both played the fiddle. While I thought they were both equally amazing, my sister said that the former’s bowing was the really impressive thing. I’ll have to believe her on this one.
Flemmons was arguably the most gregarious of the group, and he was certainly the most dapper. In his suspenders and straw hat he looked like quite the old time gentleman. When he stood to dance and play the “bones” with both hand, his herky jerky movements looked like a marionette or a Tim Burton creation. The intriguing bones are a percussion instrument made of wood or bone, consisting of two sticks held in one hand clicked together clicked together through the movement of the hand, similar to playing spoons. While his dancing looked spontaneous, Giddens dancing seemed much more practiced, toward the end of the set she left her seat for an energetic twirl while Robinson blew the jug. The traditional jug sounds an awful lot like modern beatboxing, as was illustrated when Robinson left the jug on the ground to provide the beats for one of their more modern sounding numbers.
All in all it was quite the hypnotic evening. In fact the only misstep of the night may have been the improv collaborative song with the band that had played prior to them. Like a Saturday Night Live skit, it was a good idea that went on too long.