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Drops of Joy

By Glenn Weiser

Carolina Chocolate Drops, Guy Davis

The Egg, Sept. 12


If you don·t think multiculturalism can be fun, listen to the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The Appalachian string-band music that the trio perform so capably is a confluence of African and European folk music that originated on antebellum plantations when whites learned from their slaves how to play the banjo, and in turn taught them jigs and reels on the fiddle (hence the racial slur ·jig·). In 2005, three young black musicians, Dom Flemons (banjo, guitar, bones) Rhiannon Giddens (banjo, fiddle, kazoo), and Justin Robinson (banjo, fiddle, jug) met at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., and formed an African-American old-time band. To learn to play this music with authenticity, they studied weekly with 91-year-old North Carolinian fiddler Joe Thompson, who is considered the last black string-band player. Taking their name from the 1920s group the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, they have since made three CDs, and have delighted audiences with their propulsive, polished sound.

The Drops led off with ·Peace Behind the Bridge,· a tune by Piedmont blues guitarist Etta Baker. Giddens played clawhammer banjo, Robinson fiddled, and Flemons played the rhythm bones, an instrument dating back to the days of minstrelsy. The sound was at once crude and smooth; Robinson·s fiddle style in particular seemed a relic from a bygone age. Next was ·Georgia Buck,· a well-known old-time fiddle tune learned from Joe Thompson whose title refers to a sexual position. As is common in string-band music, Giddens sang a few snatches of verse during the tune, revealing a clear, agile soprano (she studied opera at Oberlin College before switching to folk music). Another fine offering in the old-time vein was ·Boatman,· an 1843 song by the composer of ·Dixie,· Dan Emmett, whose bandmate in the famed Virginia Minstrels, Joel Walker Sweeny, invented the 5-string banjo in 1832 by adding an extra string to the African ·banjar· and replacing the original gourd with a drum.

Athough most of the trio·s repertoire consists of old-time music, they also played two country songs in string-band style. ·Jackson,· by Johnny Cash and June Carter, became a hoedown in the Drops· hands, and Jimmy Rogers· ·Sadie, My Little Lady· a ragtime stomp.

Opening was acoustic bluesman and actor Guy Davis, 58, a consummate entertainer who flashed his thespian skills in between songs with droll stories and asides. He seemed to be singing through a sore throat, but that only added to the grittiness of his sound. Davis· only drawback is that next to contemporaries like Paul Geremia and John Hammond Jr., his guitar playing is rather rudimentary. If he beefed up his chops he·d have it all.

 

Rebel Yell

Hank Williams III, Assjack

Northern Lights, Sept. 7

Hank III·s last area show was back in 2004 at Saratoga Winners, before the place burned to the ground. A group of senior citizens had shown to see the performance by Hank Williams· grandson, whom Minnie Pearl once reportedly called a ·ghost· of the country music legend. Hank III looks nothing like his father, commercial country star Hank Williams Jr., but shares the nasal twang, the hollowed face and the narrow eyes of his famous granddad.

The club thoughtfully set out rows of folding chairs a ways back from the stage for the older folk, who sat politely, as far as I could tell, while the tattooed Hank III cussed and hollered through a set of punked-up country tunes about drinking, drugging and screwing around. As patient as they were, the older country music fans made a beeline for the door during the second half of Hank III·s show, though, when his country outfit (the Damn Band) left the stage and his Assjack group came out to play headbanging thrash.

Six years later and Hank III is still catering to very different crowds at his shows, from straight-up country fans in trucker hats to metalheads in Motorhead T-shirts. He accommodates their tastes·and his own·by compartmentalizing his set into distinct segments. The country comes first and the harder stuff (a metal-country hybrid called ·hellbilly· followed by the punk-metal of Assjack) comes later, at which point Hank III lets the country fans know they might want to leave.

·We take pride in doing one of the longest shows for the ticket price in the music business,· Hank III announced during his Northern Lights show. And true, nobody felt cheated, seeing as the guy played for more than three hours. But unless you were a die-hard fan of Assjack·s moshpit-churning nu-metal-punk (and they did exist), the country set was where it was at.

For two hours and 25 songs, a grinning Hank III, dressed in a cowboy hat with a braid down his back and a jean vest loaded with punk patches, had the crowd chanting along to his inexhaustible stream of rebellious tunes about drinking and hell-raising. (His first four songs alone were ·Straight to Hell,· ·Thrown Out of the Bar,· ·Gettin· Drunk and Fallin· Down,· and ·Smoke & Wine.·) His band were a crack crew who played with traditional country instruments (stand-up bass, fiddle, banjo, pedal steel) but had all the intensity of the devil-defeating fiddler in that Charlie Daniels tune.

After ·Pills I Took,· a cover of gothic country duo Those Poor Bastards that appears on Hank III·s Straight to Hell album, Assjack singer Gary Lindsey came onstage to add screamo vocals to the hillbilly hoedowns of ·Long Hauls and Close Calls,· ·Three Shades of Black,· ·Rebel Within,· and ·P.F.F. (Punch Fight Fuck),· a song dedicated to G.G. Allin. Lindsey·s metalcore chants were grating, though, and it was a relief when he left the stage.

The later part of Hank III·s country set was by far the best part of the night, his band truly smoking and Hank III branching out from the party-loving tunes. After informing the crowd that Hank Williams Sr. had been kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry during his lifetime and never reinstated after death·even though the famous Nashville concert series profits from his merchandise·Hank III played a mini set honoring his legendary grandfather. ·The Grand Ole Opry/Ain·t So Grand· called out the country music institution for a lack of respect; ·If You Don·t Like Hank Williams (You Can Kiss My Ass)· was a reworked version of the Kris Kristofferson tune; and ·I·ll Never Get Out of This World Alive· was a pitch-perfect rendition of the last song that Hank Williams ever wrote.

After ·Country Heroes,· which name-checks his country music influences and is one of Hank III·s best songs, and a Wayne Hancock cover (·Double A Daddy· merged into ·Juke Joint Jumping·), Hank III closed with a pair of songs (·Not Everybody Likes Us,· ·Dick in Dixie·) that summed up his distaste for the Nashville pop-country scene. ·Well I think I·d rather eat the barrel of a double-barrel loaded shotgun, than hear that shit they call pop-country music,· he sang on ·Not Everybody Likes Us.· Hank, tell us how you really feel.

·Kirsten Ferguson


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