Music review: Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Jefferson

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The Carolina Chocolate Drops continues to elevate traditional folk and highlight African-American heritage. The trio played the Jefferson on April 1. Photo: Hank Strauss The Carolina Chocolate Drops continues to elevate traditional folk and highlight African-American heritage. The trio played the Jefferson on April 1. Photo: Hank Strauss

When the Carolina Chocolate Drops hit us up with a cover of a throwaway R&B number three years ago and earned its own little bit of YouTube fame, one word described the effect—fun. But as it happens, the trio was only a year away from the sudden and mysterious departure of one of its founding members.

Was there something less than fun going on behind the scenes?

And, more importantly for the Drops’ growing cult following, could they regroup and keep the good times rolling?

Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens, the band’s two remaining founders, were intent on proving they could (and have) on April 1 at The Jefferson Theater. Flemons is a natural performer, if a bit of a ham, and giddily flipped his guitar around during the night’s second number, “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind.” Giddens was more serious, even while telling the ladies what to do when their man “gets buck wild” in the Drops’ internet-sensation cover of “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” But she too dropped her guard and broke into a jig alongside two local cloggers during Monday night’s encore.

The concert wasn’t all fun and games though. The Drops are in many ways teachers, instructing  fans on the history of black music. During the Charlottesville tour stop, they pedantically described the traditional instruments they broke out at various points during the show and explained—somewhat laboriously—the meaning of several songs.

Still, the band, now composed of three permanent members and several rotating guest artists, is too quick on its feet, too relentless to allow its audience to grow tired of  explanations. Many of the Drops’ tunes come in at around two minutes, and most of them draw on the lighthearted side of southern black music—Flemons makes up silly lyrics in a recreation of “One Dollar Bill” because he says he couldn’t understand the original words, and in “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” the group is “making love as long as they are able.”

But just as there may have been something simmering beneath the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ lighthearted exterior when Justin Robinson took his leave of Flemons and Giddens in 2011, the new iteration of the band certainly has a serious side. Standing shoulder to shoulder across the small Jefferson stage just before 11 p.m. on Monday, the four touring members ended the night by chanting the traditional slave song “Read ‘Em John.” The song implores a literate slave to read a letter his compatriots hope will “let them go.”

After that, it was hard to let the Drops go on their own way. ~Shea Gibbs

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