2/12: Dropping In, with Chocolates

Everything old is new again — and so’s the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the new lineup of which (Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins, with guest cellist Leyla McCalla absent on picture day) visits the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth U on February 17. 

Carolina Chocolate Drops, you had us with the spoons. Or was it the bones? The jugs? The quills?

Whatever. Just because a band gets period-precise (or rummages the kitchen junk drawer) in pursuit of an authentic “old timey” sound doesn’t make them any less than hypercurrent — provided the music is purveyed in the raucous spirit of a fruitjar corn-squeezins barndance shivaree, rather than a sleepy sermon or a fusty lecture.

Rest assured that the Chocolate Drops are THAT old-timey, thanks to their collective scholarly specialty — the black string band/ jug band music that began to capture the nation’s fancy right around the time that scratchy radios and 78 rpm Victrola records started replacing battered pianos and sheet music in American homes. Call it “dirt floor music” — but reckon that a dirt floor can be a firm foundation on which to construct a happy house made up of field-recording folk, crossroads blues, hayride bluegrass and speakeasy jazz, with a permit posted for new additions like hipster alt-country and houseparty hip-hop.

And yeah, the Chocolate Drops are THAT new-fangled, thanks to a deft mastery of social media and post-musicbiz meltdown marketing — a DIY savvy that’s allowed the Piedmont-spawned combo to top the Billboards, play the Grand Old Opry (first black string band EVER to do so, if you can believe that) and win a Grammy for their 2010 major label debut Genuine Negro Jig, nary five years from the time that founders Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson first made each other’s acquaintance via a Yahoo group.

They’ve even got a new lineup — with NYC-based multi-instrumentalizer Hubby Jenkins replacing Robinson in the core trio — and it’s this troupe of troubadors (augmented by cellist Leyla McCalla) that visits the Upper Wet Side for the first time on Friday night, February 17, for a concert at Monmouth University‘s Pollak Theatre.

The 8pm show — for which the opening act is the hot ‘n spicy bluegrass blueplate specialties of the Brooklyn-bred M Shanghai String Band (look here for our past interview with Monmouth County mandolin master Richard Morris)  — occurs just under two weeks in front of the “drop date” for Leaving Eden, the band’s followup release on the Nonesuch label and the first recorded evidence of the current CCD configuration.

Recorded in the home studio of lately legendary Americana-man Buddy Miller — producer of Solomon Burke’s Nashville and some seminal sessions by Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris and Robert Plant — Leaving Eden finds the Carolina Chocolate Drops fortified by McCalla plus human beatbox (and occasional tourmate) Adam Matta for a set of fifteen chestnuts and original seedlings that run a gamut and a gauntlet between instrumental and a capella; mournful plaints of loss and gleeful declarations of independence; barndance breakdowns and rocking-chair reveries.

We got an advance listen to this warm and inviting (but still playfully boundary-busting) platter, and we dug especially the band’s driving rip through the high-mileage hillbilly chestnut “Ruby Are You Mad at Your Man;” the jaunty bee-sting twang of “Mahalla” (we swear it sounds like one of Jonathan Richman’s friendly folk instros) and the ominous back-country detour through “West End Blues.” Taking the majority of the vocal leads, singer-fiddler-banjobelle Rhiannon Giddens is in awesome form, as evidenced on the trilling Ethel Waters strutter “No Man’s Mama” and her self-penned “Country Girl,” a hiphop-infused spotlight track that stakes a claim to new corners of the band’s stylistic turf.

Flemons, the Arizona-born banjo expert and former National Poetry Slam competitor whose multi-faceted contributions also include vocals, African gourd and the aforementioned quills (think of an Irish tin whistle’s African cousin), stopped to chat for a spell somewhere on the road between the Piedmont and Eden.

upperWETside: So where are we finding you out there on the road? Are you headed to LA for the Grammys?

DOM FLEMONS: No, we’re taking two or three days off to make a music video for “Country Girl.” The album’s not officially out until the 28th, but we want to be ahead of the game with a finished video.

What can we expect to see and hear at Monmouth University on the 17th, with the four piece band? You’ve been quoted as saying that you do “stand-up” shows where you keep the talking down and get everybody dancing, and “sit-down” shows where you tell stories about the songs…

There are always stories going on; always some dancing…a LOT of dance music if the floor’s open. It’s all kind of the same thing; all good entertainment — people tend to forget that music should be entertaining.

I think that one of the really interesting things about you guys is that the so-called old timey music that you play was something that really took the country by storm because of technology; things like radio and records. And now you’re a band that really coalesced around things like social media; you’ve used these new tools to your advantage and you’ve been anything but a bunch of technophobe Luddites…

That’s really how it all started for us…we met and started our group through the Black Banjo  Yahoo mixer, with Tony Thomas. The internet made our group get out there so fast — we got bookings almost instantly; a lot of them in Southern schools. And YouTube helped us get ourselves known, much faster than the previous route.

So I have to give credit to certain things related to the internet, but I’m kind of in a halfway spot about it myself. I grew up going to stores, buying CDs. That’s where my heart remains. Back then you would order things from catalogs, send a check and hope for the best. Kids, people younger than us, have no concept of that — they can get anything they want now, through all sorts of means. It’s affected our group like it’s affected everyone; the CD sales are down.

But really, the social media thing was ultimately just a tool to facilitate the live performance thing…and it’s on the live stage that you’ve really made and maintained your fanbase.

The live thing has really helped us get along, given us a leg up. People see everything that we’re doing, can see how this music was created outside of a studio.

Well, your management was kind enough to pass along an advance listen to the new album, and I have to say that the teamup between the Chocolate Drops and Buddy Miller is everything that could be hoped for. I think he really got to your essence here; there’s a real musicology at work but it’s done without being all dry and scholarly about it…and it’s not so cornball retro that it has to sound like it’s coming out of an old Victrola horn.

We were looking to work with Buddy…we wanted to have recordings that were a lot more natural sounding; we wanted to have more of a sense of the room. And I think we have that on this album.

There’s been kind of a push and pull happening with production, ever since this transitional period in the 1970s and 80s and 90s — everything became more synthetic; there was a cleanliness, a sterility that made everything sound the same. Some producers — like Rick Rubin with the albums he did with Johnny Cash, have been able to manipulate their sound with the materials they have at hand.

Sometimes a really awesome demo has its own flair to it. Like the Bob Dylan song “Every Grain of Sand” — the Bootleg Series demo version is really beautiful, and the final version is still a good song, but there’s just more stuff happening.

Well, you had me at the spoons. The song “Ruby Are You Mad At Your Man” sounds amazing, and I swear I’ve heard it from all sorts of people in all sorts of permutations over the years. The 1960s New York psychedelic synthesizer band The Silver Apples had a song called “Ruby,” with a really primitive synth and drums and a banjo…you could hear them doing some half-remembered take on this old tune.

You’ve got me scrambling now to look up original versions and other stuff by the songwriters you cover, which I guess is part of the point. So much of your stuff sounds like it just explodes from you in one supremely confident take — another one that I especially love is that Ethel Waters song, “No Man’s Mama”…

“No Man’s Mama,” which was actually written by the guy who wrote “Alabama Jubilee,” really solidified when we were in the studio. We spent a good amount of time on that one, and we spent a lot of time on “Ruby,” “Country Girl,” “Mahalla,” and “Boodle-De-Bum-Bum.”

I think that if we had an infinite amount of time to make the record, we would have cut it again…we would have been nitpicking naysayers to ourselves. We would have concerned ourselves with how people handle the album on a broader scale; how the broader journalistic body handles it. Over in the UK, the reviewers either want us to be completely traditional, or be completely progressive.

Well, you’ll go nuts trying to please the UK press, but here in this country you’ve also got the Americana music establishment, a self-appointed body of people who spend a lot of time parsing just what is and ain’t “Americana,” not that anyone’s defined it to everyone’s satisfaction. There are some strong opinions there as to who’s deserving of a Grammy nomination.

Well, for years when people heard the kind of music that we’re into, the old stuff, they reacted like they didn’t want anything to do with it; you know, “these people can’t sing…”

We won our Grammy in the Traditional Folk category, and now I guess we’d compete in the Americana or Folk category…there’s been a lot of changes made recently in the categories; they took out traditional blues and folk; they took out Latin Jazz…and yet there are all these musicians who’ve been making a career out of playing these types of music.

What happens is that when somebody like Wynton Marsalis, Bruce Springsteen, BB King puts out a blues or a folk album, when Eric Clapton does another salute to Robert Johnson or something, those guys get the Grammy, and everybody else is completely fucked. The traditional guys are not gonna make it.

I’m referring to the case of a singer who lives around here in the area near Monmouth University — Linda Chorney, who used the Grammy 365 social media function to alert voters to her self-released indie album, and to actually score a nomination in the Americana category. She’s currently out there having the time of her life, doing press and defending her work against people who have actually suggested she should withdraw from the competition.

The industry can’t stand when an artist changes the rules— THEY’RE supposed to be the ones who make the rules. But it’s very liberating for a musician to take charge of things. The industry, the record labels, don’t have to stand with you — you have to figure out how to make it work for yourself.

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