Any band working in the “old time” genre does so with a preservationist ethos. It’s the degree to which these modern musicians decide to reinterpret traditional tunes that separates the revivalists from the purists. The Carolina Chocolate Drops fall ostensibly in that latter camp, functioning as much as a repertory company as a touring band. Their Sunday performance at the Egg’s homey Swyer Theater found the recently reconfigured quartet schooling the audience on the history of minstrel-era banjo tunes and African-American fiddle music from the Piedmont region of the Carolinas in both song and story.
They’re probably as close to the preeminent authority on the subject that this generation has. Core members Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons famously learned the bulk of their repertoire from Joe Thompson, the 93-year-old “last black fiddler of North Carolina.” Since the departure of other founding member Justin Robinson last year, on the heels of a Grammy win for Best Traditional Folk Album (Genuine Negro Jig), the group have continued the mission with multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and rising cellist Leyla McCalla. With the exception of a traditional Haitian song that McCalla led in the second set, as well as Giddens’ curiously well-executed cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!),” the quartet hewed to Appalachian tradition, often citing the particular recording of a song they were replicating before treating it with all the archaic trappings of jug, bones and panpipes it deserved.
Passing lead vocal duties down the line, Giddens performed an “awfully specific” 1929 divorce song by Ethel Waters before Jenkins’ rendition of the traditional “Truly Understand (That You Love Another Man).” When the heat of stage lights caused Jenkins to pop a banjo string, Giddens took the opportunity to produce her gut-strung replica of a misntrel-era banjo popularized by Joel Sweeney, a blackface musician who introduced the instrument to white audiences. Admitting to the deeply racist nature of this body of work, and keeping with the group’s undiluted approach to their songbook, Flemons joked that it was worth “building up the hearty constitution” to perform it anyway. As Giddens played two tunes from the Briggs Banjo Instructor period book, Flemons and Jenkins traded percussion solos on the castanets-like bones. Consummate showmen, the two pantomimed baseball and boxing moves as they tapped out their parts.
Flemons, especially, showed a flair for animated showmanship. In suspenders and porkpie hat, he donned a period persona of vaudevillian elasticity, spinning his guitar and bouncing his shoulders and knees to a second-set rendition of Thompson’s “Old Corn Liquor.” Consistent with the group’s earnest, if slightly squirm-inducing, commitment to racial style of the period, the act, it’s tempting to assume, had as much to do with exaggerated pastiches of African-American folk dance (like the Bosko cartoon) as the genuine Piedmont tradition.
Highlights included Etta Baker’s “West End Blues,” Sonny Boy Williams’ “Polly Put Your Kettle On,” and Laurelyn Dossett’s haunting lament, “Leaving Eden,” about a mill town gutted by the globalizing economy, for which the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ forthcoming new record takes its name.