The opening act at NYC’s Downtown River to River Festival series tonight was a group called the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The group consists of Justin Robinson (fiddle, vocal), Rhiannon Giddens (banjo, vocal), Dom Flemons (banjo, guitar, jug, vocal) and Sule Greg Wilson (percussion, vocal). You’ll see them described in press coverage as:
“An African-American string band based in the Triangle area of North Carolina rooted in the traditional music of the foothills and mountains of North and South Carolina.”
Which is in part correct – they are indeed rooted in a local Carolina black string band tradition (they take their spiritual guidance from an important older-head fiddle player named Joe Thompson). However, they aren’t really constrained by the usual kind of dogmatism one finds among those who police the borders of traditional music — they’ll take anything out of the African-American musical tradition and adapt it. Last night, for example, Dom Flemons, for example, did “Viper Mad,” a weed song associated with jazz musician Sidney Bechet, while Rhiannon led a fiddle/vocal version of Blue Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style” — complete with Robinson beat-boxing. It was way cool.
Their stage presence was great (very easy going without feeling “staged”) and their sound was crisp. If they come through your town, do yourself a favor and go see them. They’re a really, really good band and you’d be crazy to miss them.