Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Vanilla in my Chocolate Drop

In popular music the customer is always right. So the extremely well meaning crowd at Prospect Park, primarily composed of people young enough to have no concept of what Martin, Bogan and Armstrong or the Mississippi Sheiks sounded like, gave an appropriately enthusiastic response to the polite, stylish, well educated young musicians with the cute name the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The Drops play what they refer to very seriously as African American String Band Music and they play it with the studied enthusiasm and complete lack of empathy the folk groups in A Mighty Wind demonstrated. The string band tradition, played by a mixture of African American, European and Creole musicians dating back to the pre-jazz days in the 19th century, is a vivid amalgam of styles. The well spoken and likable Carolina Chocolate Drops play mostly in a later, early 20th century version of the style, and they supply detailed observations of how they discovered the various cover songs in their repertoire. "Viper Mad," explained Rhiannon Giddens, was unearthed from a soundtrack by that exemplar of African American string band music, Woody Allen. The very beautiful Rhiannon, born in 1977 just at the right time to be named after the hit song by that seminal African American string band touchstone Fleetwood Mac, plays a very credible fiddle and not so good banjo but has an excellent voice and really knows how to loosen up a crowd with observations like "I know you are in seats so if you want to dance and you don't want to block the view of someone in front of you there are spaces in the aisles where you can stand up and dance." Rhiannon sounded most comfortable singing a Scottish folk song, right after pointing out that there were more Scottish immigrants in North Carolina than in Canada! Justin Robinson, whose fiddle playing is the best instrumental work in the group, sometimes steps on Rhiannon's lines accidentally in those pre-song history lessons. Unfortunately he also attempts to play jug during the set. The jug wasn't intended to be played through large amplified sound systems in concert settings. It's a back porch instrument that the skilled player can get damn good resonance out of in the right context, but Justin might as well have been blowing across the lip of a coke bottle that night. The crowd might well have thought the Grateful Dead or the Lovin' Spoonful invented jug band music, though, because they applauded like that jug was telling a lively story. Dom Flemons, the Carolina Chocolate Drop who is actually from Arizona, also tried to play the jug on another tune with equally fatuous results. He also plays banjo, exciting the crowd with a trick where he uses a slide on the banjo strings for dramatic effect, and National steel guitar, which he attacks with a technique apparently drawn from another important African American string music source, the Clash. His windmilling arm motions and high speed playing may not contain much syncopation but boy did they excite this audience. One can only imagine the potential response to Tampa Red, Bo Carter or even Charlie Poole.

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