Old-time bangers

The Carolina Chocolate Drops hit the red zone
By JIM MACNIE  |  January 19, 2010

ACTIVE LISTENING "It's not an 'I'm going to stand here and sing and you can listen if you want to' kind of thing," says Rhiannon Giddens (left).

The one element needed when revitalizing a neglected canon? Verve. Ever since the Carolina Chocolate Drops hit the trad-acoustic scene a few years ago, they've kept this notion front and center. And though there's a fair amount of scholarship floating through their update of African-American string-band music from the first quarter of the past century, there's lots of frenzy, too. At CCD performances (one of which you can catch this Saturday at the Somerville Theatre), the fiddle is scratched with abandon, the banjo is smacked around, and the jug is blown with mucho gusto.

Actually, all this animation is key to the music's cultural integrity, because the tunes the trio have been updating — "Sally Ann," "Ole Corn Likker," "Rickett's Hornpipe," and the like — are yesteryear's party fodder, the songbook of fish fries, barn dances, and hoedowns. Folk-festival audiences who caught the band on the summer circuit during the past two years know that when the Drops romp through a ditty like "Sourwood Mountain," the energy level hits the red zone.

"That's what we do — we're performers," says fiddler, banjo player, and vocalist Rhiannon Giddens. "We're kind of an older model: we're actively entertaining. It's not an 'I'm going to stand here and sing and you can listen if you want to' kind of thing. We want to push it to the next level. There's a joy in playing — it's exhilarating. Our approach goes back to community music. We're all in it together."

Giddens, multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons, and fiddler Justin Robinson connected five years ago at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, and they subsequently enjoyed some first-hand mentoring from 90-year-old Joe Thompson, one of the last remaining patriarchs of the Piedmont style of picking. Their mutual revelation regarding the music's importance prompted a bond, and their obvious chemistry won them quick acclaim. Now, after a couple of indie discs, Nonesuch Records has offered them a bit more visibility. Genuine Negro Jig drops next month, and even though it's a tad more formal (Mr. Joe Henry oversees production), the group's hallmark of immediacy remains intact.

The speed whomp of "Sandy Boys" is a front-porch party starter, and their sassy "Cornbread and Butterbeans" has the bounce of Bob Wills's "Take Me Back to Tulsa." But it's the spin through Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'Em Up Style" that will boost the buzz for this disc. Redesigning the 2001 R&B hit that name-drops BMWs and Neiman-Marcus shopping sprees to fit an æsthetic that generally refers to ridin' mules and cagin' hogs is a stretch, but the Drops seem to have as much of a talent for messing with orthodoxy as they do for catering to it. Jill Scott fan Giddens suggested the update, and there was a good reason behind it. "We were playing for kids in high schools, and we wanted to do something that said, 'We can do your rhythms, too.' If a song clicks, we do it — doesn't matter what period it comes from."

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