Over The Weekend: Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Granda Theater

Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Fox & The Bird, Mikldrive
Granada Theater
September 16, 2011

Better than: having my concert hopes dashed due to rain (Sorry, Explosions in the Sky ticket-holders).

When at their best, concerts are far more than a simple equation of an artist performing while people watch them. When a crowd can feel as though they've been schooled in a wonderfully inviting way -- as well as get treated to a show that induces muscular soreness in the cheekbones from continual, involuntary grinning -- calling the show a mere "concert" seems insulting.

Indeed, the hour-and-a-half set on Friday night from the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Granada Theater provided more transcendent moments than even this virtual page you read can hold.

Inside of a comfortably crowded room, with a mix of young and old approving of each move made by the still-young foursome, the Chocolate Drops merged the urban with the rural, the old-school with the new order.

Their set-list, comprised primarily of old roots standards and material from their breakthrough LP, 2010's Genuine Negro Jig, was really more a vehicle for the individual band members personalities and distinctive talents than it was the main attraction. Throughout the night, each song, whether it was Jimmie Rodgers "T for Texas," or "If I Lose," -- which CCD male-lead Dom Flemmons said was originally performed by 1930's Dallas-based Blues chanteuse Maggie Jones -- was preceded by a short, often humorous lesson.

This wasn't a concert as much as it was the most entertaining history class this side of Bill & Ted's school year-saving presentation at San Dimas High.

With the addition of beat-boxer Adam Matta as well as Hubby Jenkins, who replaced an original Chocolate Drop several months ago, the newly re-worked group has certainly upped their ability to breathe relevant, new life into a style that can easily be considered prime material for the AARP set.

Early in the set, Flemmons strapped a single snare drum around his neck and patted on it while Matta laid down quick, precise beats and the other two members performed acoustically and respectively. That was merely the first instance where two seemingly divergent sonic worlds collided where each were able to still shine individually while feeling completely conjoined.

When Rhiannon Giddens and Matta stood from their chairs to perform a duet, Giddens let the crowd know that they were about to hear what "Ireland Meets Brooklyn sounds like." What followed was flawless, old-world yodeling to the futuristic scratches and rhythms of Matta.

Oh, by the way, and speaking of unique instrumentation: Did you know that a kazoo could seriously swing? Giddens made no one sure would forget anytime soon: She belted some Dixieland gusto with her kazoo during "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine." As it turns out, the Chocolate Drops really know their way around a number of instruments that are forgotten by many current so-called roots acts. Whether it was the manically percussive hand-held wooden bones that would furiously slap together to keep intense time, or the hand-made gourd banjo that Giddens expertly picked, the show and its enjoyable educational value continued to grow.

Giddens wasn't done wowing the audience, either. When she stood to take center stage for the Ethel Waters divorce classic "No Man's Momma," her ability to impress couldn't be denied as she lustily turned the song into a declaration of independence. Still, she was far from finished.

Sure, given the admirable turnout for the show, there were certainly some numbers that the eager mass hoped would pop up sooner or later. "Cornbread and Butterbeans" is simply the best song that combines food and sex (we're sure that George Costanza would have this on his iPod) and it was requested from the crowd numerous times before the band finally busted it out to speedy, stomping perfection. With members of the Greatest Generation bouncing and dancing as though no one was watching down near the stage, the virtuosic fiddle and supremely sexy vocal of Giddens once again took over and proffered the prize that many in the house were seeking all along: CCD's popular and inventive re-working of Blu Cantrell's 2001 R&B chart-smash "Hit 'Em Up Style." It's maybe the most danceable tune that the folk/Americana scene has welcomed in years, and the Granada crowd certainly didn't let that opportunity pass them by as the band seemed buoyed by the sway of those occupying front few rows.

No, Friday night's performance wasn't merely a concert. For the majority who were there, it was a reimagining of the soul that's always been alive in acoustic roots music, even if it's been dormant as of late.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
While the competition has certainly gotten tougher, I still think the Granada is the best venue in town, regardless of any polls, awards or so-called controversies. There's no place else in the area where this show would've carried the same vibe.

By The Way: The Fox & The Bird performed before CCD and while they were as solid as they dependably, always are, they seemed to lack a bit of the whimsy that has been a great part of their live show in the past. Perhaps that's due to the somewhat recent line-up changes or perhaps it was due to the fact that this was the last show for one of their fellow members. Of course, playing tunes from their stellar recent release, Floating Feather, is always going to help their set overcome certain obstacles. Either way, it's nice that even on a less-than-whimsical night, this group is still a wonderful band to experience.

Random Note: I'll never tire of walking between the Granada and Snuffers. If there was a cologne for that smell of greasy burgers, I'd buy it by the barrel.

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