While everyone else in town was watching the Packers get their hearts broken, a sellout crowd was packed into the Cedar Sunday night to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a trio of hypertalented musicians in their midtwenties who are spearheading what’s come to be known as the Black String Band Revival.
A little history: The banjo is often thought of as the quintessential American instrument, but the truth is that the banjo’s roots stretch back to Africa, and slaves in the South played home-made, banjolike instruments made of gourds and sticks for more than 100 years before a white person ever picked one up. Prior to the rise of bluegrass music, string and jug bands got people’s feet stomping and the repertoire of the Carolina Chocolate Drops is drawn largely from this era of all-but-forgotten music from the early 1800s. Specifically, the Chocolate Drops hail from the Piedmont area of North Carolina, where a distinctive brand of fiddle- and banjo-driven string-band music was played, a form that dispenses with the high nasal harmonies of Appalachian–style traditional music and lets the banjo and jug drive the beat rather than a guitar and bass.
Still, this is the sort of mountain music that can be monotonous and grating in the wrong hands, especially if the fiddle player is drunk or out of tune. But the Chocolate Drops have a knack for putting together interesting arrangements of these old tunes—songs with names such as “Old Cat Died,” “Ol’ Corn Likker,” “Another Man Done Gone,” and “Viper Mad”—injecting the songs with new life while still retaining echoes of their traditional roots. Each member of the band plays five or six different instruments, and they change instruments on practically every song.
Spectacular musicianship helps, too. I don’t know this for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that each of the Chocolate Drops—Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson—has a healthy chunk of classical training under their belt. Their arrangements are too smart, they play too well, and they’re far too young not to have developed some Suzuki chops along the way. Another key asset is Rhiannon Giddens, the lone woman in the group, who has a singing voice that’s like an unusually good batch of moonshine—smoother and more supple than you’d expect, but just rough enough around the edges to remind you of its raw ingredients.
Together the Drops sound larger than a mere trio, partly because audience members inevitably start stomping their feet along with the band. They have fun, too, which is part of their charm. They goof around with each other between songs, pass the jug back and forth incessantly (for playing, not drinking), and encourage the audience to dance wherever they can find space. Dancing was almost impossible at the Cedar last night, though, because the place was sold out.
This is only the second time the Chocolate Drops have played in Minnesota, and word of mouth from their last performance was tremendous. There’s no telling when the Drops will be in town next, but if you don’t want to wait that long, they’re giving another performance tonight in honor of Martin Luther King Day. It’s primarily for school kids, but as of last night there were still some tickets available.
The Chocolate drops play again at 7 p.m. on January 21 at the Cedar, 416 Cedar Ave. S., Mpls., 612-338-2674, thecedar.org.