Regional Music History 101 with the Carolina Chocolate Drops

The Egg Performing Arts Center’s American Roots and Branches series featured two unique acts that celebrated bygone eras of early American music that have since been revisited, to critical acclaim. Carolina Chocolate Drops, along with opening band Birds of Chicago performed in the Swyer Theater to an intimate sold out crowd, sitting quiet and focused during each song and story behind it, but applauded with great aplomb once a selection had completed. Hanging onto every note, the bands on stage were feeding a patient and receptive audience, eager to hear music that has otherwise been forgotten in American musical history.

Birds of Chicago at The Egg. Photo by Jim Gilbert (JTG Photo)

Birds of Chicago opened the night with a six song set of folk-country that was mellow yet had a steady beat. Performing for the first time in Albany, Allison Russell sang with a June Carter-esque voice and vibe, playing banjo and clarinet on “Wild Horses”. Making jokes about her heritage (Scottish-Grenadian-Canadian) and nodding to her husband JT Nero (who has an incredible range in his voice) who is also Scottish, noted that this only complicates their daughter’s extensive heterogeneous background even more. “Sans Souci”, a pre-zydeco French influenced tune was a highlight of the set, and with the guitarist using his pedal with a gentle touch, he carefully poured each note out carefully, turning what may have been a 45’ speed song to that of a 33’. The finale, “Fever” gave the audience a fake-out, where an initially chill and happy song turned into a foot-stomping rager. A perfect complement to the main act this evening, Birds of Chicago stood out with a sound that was as unique as their band members.

Carolina Chocolate Drops took to the stage and opened up with an Emma Shelton tune “Pretty Little Girl with the Blue Dress on”, where Rhiannon Giddens somehow did not stumble over the complicated Micro-Machines-Guy speed of lyrics, accentuating every word perfectly. “Sandy Boys” encouraged a community sing-along, in an Appalachian/Hackensaw Boys style. A soulful “Country Girl” preceded a brief history lesson, taking the audience back to 1855 and using an 1858-era minstrel-style banjo, which had a light sound due to its hollow back. Along with the Bones, two pieces of wood click-clacked together with precision by Rowan Corbett, these are two of the oldest instruments in the world, brought to America by slaves from Africa and the banjo only brought into the broader musical pantheon in the latter part of the 19th century.

Carolina Chocolate Drops at The Egg. Photo by Jim Gilbert (JTG Photo)

Rhiannon, reserved and soft-spoken but with a stage presence that shows marks of experience and maturity that added to the sound and performance on stage, also played banjo and fiddle in the course of the evening, the latter of which was key to the sound of many songs and underscores Hubby Jenkins’ banjo. A Hank Williams tune suggested by a friend “Please Don’t Let Me Love You” preceded a solo tune from Hubby, who had only a single string holding his guitar around him – no sturdy strap – for this was a band playing ol’ timey music with ol’ timey instruments, down to how they wore them on stage.

Singing Odetta’s “Waterboy”, the peak of the song was the wick of a firecracker, setting off the audience in applause and loudly garnering a ‘God Damn!’ from an audience member, certainly speaking for all. “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” was performed in a more upbeat fashion than the familiar Grateful Dead version while “Ruby”, a bluegrass standard, was played in its original version with dobro, bones and Rhiannon’s sweet voice eliciting the cry for the title woman. “Buck Creek Girls” had cellist Malcolm Parson playing his cello in the style of Edgar Meyer, and later picking it up to play it as the song accelerated, thanks to Corbett’s Bones, a new favorite instrument of all in attendance.

Carolina Chocolate Drops at The Egg. Photo by Jim Gilbert (JTG Photo)

Thanks to Scottish settlers in North Carolina in the 1700s, Scotch-Gaelic mouth music was brought to the region. “Puirt a Beul”, sung by the Chocolate Drops with a beat from the bass drum, it recalled Irish singing but without a full band sound and had a distinct language it, incomparable to any other folk style. These songs could have been an early inspiration for Cajun songs if the Acadians were to have picked something up on their way from Maine to Louisiana.

As the set came to a close, more raucous upbeat songs were performed, closing with storytelling music in “Old Cat Died/Brown’s Dream”. The encore, “Read ‘em John” was a song about how to spread and enrich an idea, a capella style, a perfect Coda for the evening.