Here’s the difference between listening to the Carolina Chocolate Drops on CD and seeing them play live: on CD, Rhiannon Giddens will sing, play the banjo, switch to kazoo, and wow you six ways to Sunday, sure, but live, you get to see her dance to Salty Dog.
And gentleman, that lady can dance.
We aren’t talking some slow cotillion two-step (though no doubt she could do that too). This is down home kicking wall to wall style.
Add all of that together, throw in the feelings she openly expresses in song about two-timing losers, and you better believe this is a lady who demands some respect, on-stage or off.
Joined by virtuoso fiddler Justin Robinson and all-around songster Dom Flemons, she is part of a folk
music phenomenon. Under the tutelage of North Carolina’s Joe Thompson, considered to be one of the last of the old time African-American country fiddlers, the trio mastered the ballads and country blues of long ago.
And then they brought it back to the stage.
Now, don’t be thinking this is some quaint, easygoing recital. This is a rip-roaring, stomp and clap, jump on up and dance, revival. Chalk it up to sheer musical versatility — from panpipes to kazoo or snare drum, jug, and double bones — and flat out exuberance.
More than simply a rousing musical repertoire, what the Carolina Chocolate Drops deliver is a veritable romp through the history of time-obscured names and tunes in early American music.
The Drops do more than drop names, however. They performed in a benefit earlier this year to help put a headstone on the grave of Will Shade, a Memphis jug band and blues musician who died in poverty (the list of great blues musicians who died in poverty runs long; ask the Music Maker Relief Foundation), and they regularly provide educational workshops in schools, keeping traditions alive and names remembered.
Each song on stage is preceded by just a little bit — enough to whet the appetite — of history, an anecdote in the storytelling style of the Piedmont.
The group tore through an eclectic set of jug band jigs, mountain breakdowns, and ballads, even slipping in a nod to the contemporary with a scorching strings rendition of Blu Cantrell’s Hit ‘Em Up Style.
The question is: can the Drops, all of them young as a spring crop just beginning to poke up and point to the sky, really capture that scratchy, weather-worn, dirt road, juke joint sound? The short answer is: oh, yes, they can.
Listen — when Dom Flemons tears into City of Refuge, it may not be quite the ragged growl from an early 20th century recording of Blind Willie Johnson, but it’s not off by much.
And when they burn through Georgie Buck, just close your eyes and that dirt road winding through the foothills may as well be all around you, ghosts rattling old bottles and stomping in time. Just close your eyes, forget the here and now, and let yourself slip away into long ago with the songs.
Music this good will take you there and bring you back home again.
Carolina Chocolate Drops • Spoleto Festival USA • $20 • 1 hour 15 min. • June 5 at 9 p.m. • The Cistern, College of Charleston, 66 George St. • (843) 579-3100
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