Carolina Chocolate Drops

Carolina Chocolate Drops
Leaving Eden

Nonesuch

By David Wilson
December 2012

Every once in awhile, these jaded ears get a jolt. Instead of hearing the same old, same old, they get a sample of something fresh, exciting, creative and are left wanting more. It is a rare occurrence and the more they take in, the less often it happens.

But it did happen a month or so ago when attending the MOCA Fresh Grass Festival in North Adams.

I won’t address the anomaly of discovering great Blues at a Bluegrass festival, save to say with all the crossovers in music today it should not be a great surprise.

In any event the delight I took in the performances of the individual and collective members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops set me the following day to scurrying in search of their recordings and I latched on to several.

The latest, the above mentioned Leaving Eden, is my current favorite listening confection.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops excel in so many ways it is difficult to separate and extol all of them but here are just a few of the reasons I find them so remarkable.

One, they honor and respect traditional music including that of the African-American and do so without excluding or trivializing other mountain music traditions.

Two, they treat those traditions as if they were living, breathing and evolving forms and are not hesitant to give them a contemporary burnish (including incorporating the beatbox contributions of Adam Matta) while maintaining the emotional values and the core sentiments of the source.

Three, they are likewise able to take a contemporary piece, reframe it, and provide it a traditional sensibility in a way that still makes it emotionally accessible to the listener.

Four, they do it all with so much elegance, gentility, ease and joy that we get drawn in to the music, as well as in to their passion and their respect for that music.

In their current incarnation, Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, Hubby Jenkins, Leyla McCalla and Adam Matta combine their talents on this CD to give a wide sampling of tunes which sprung forth from the Black String Band tradition including a few blues offspring.

Rhiannon Giddens splits the lead vocals with Dom Flemons. and her clear, fluid voice, while appealing by itself, is even further enhanced by the restraint she shows in the paucity of runs, trills and ornamentation that the majority of emotionally handicapped vocalists use today as a substitute for substance. Having said that I would also note that her voice does have the grit, rasp and bite essential to doing justice to the material when required. She gives clear evidence that if she chose to be a “blues” singer exclusively she could do so with performances of the Ethel Water’s “No Man’s Mama” and her own enhancement of Etta Baker’s “West End Blues.”

Dom’s vocals are joyous and enthusiastic. Sometimes, too often, the mix submerges him a little bit in order to enhance the instrumental tracks. While said tracks are well deserving of our attention, I, for one would appreciate a little more bringing forth of Dom’s vocals.

While Hubby’s primary contribution is his virtuoso performances on mandolin, he does take the lead on “I Truly Understand That You Love Another Man” and sounds competent and authentic.

Although Leyla McCalla seems to be touring with the group now, her contributions to this release are sparse, but impactful. It might take a bit of a stretch to imagine a cello as an integral part of a traditional string band, but Leyla makes it work and her voice adds scope and variety to the harmonies the Drops apply to their material. I look forward to a future release where she may be more integrated into the band.

They are all masters of their instruments; 4 and 5 string banjos, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, cello, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum, bones, quills, tambourine and not to forget, beatbox.

There is not a cut on this CD I am tempted to skip and not one that I have not on more than one listening wanted to repeat immediately.

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