In the heart of Lincoln Park, Chicagoans donned sombreros in celebration of Cinco de Mayo. But, the headliners at Lincoln Hall had a different party planned on this Saturday night—it was a lively one that took its plaid clad audience to the 18th and 19th centuries, and for its field guide they sprinkled history lessons between songs.
There seems to be no folk or stringed instrument the Carolina Chocolate Drops aren’t proficient in, no back-story for the music they performed that they can’t explain, and certainly no crowd member they can’t rouse to a spirited clap-along. As the four multi-instrumentalists—Leyla McCalla, Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins—sat at the edge of the stage in the intimate-yet-spacious concert hall, the Chicago venue was effortlessly turned into a mid-July barn party in—you guessed it—the Carolinas, with smells of sawdust and barbeque sauce thick in the air.
The group performed tracks from February’s Leaving Eden, as well as tracks from 2010’s Genuine Negro Jig and “old timey” material they had discovered along the way. Early in the set Giddens introduced her banjo before performing “Briggs’ Corn Shucking Jig/Camptown Hornpipe.” A replica of one of the first banjos, she explained that the African instrument was largely played by African-Americans until it was popularized in the mid-1800s. Its neck had no frets or tuning pegs, its body was made of goatskin and when Giddens played it, the banjo’s plucks and planks were warmer and hollower than its 21stcentury counterparts.
Armed with rhythm bones in both hands, Flemons and Jenkins stood on either side of Giddens, and dueled as the percussive component to the song. The guys vied for spectators’ admiration as they jumped and threw their arms in the air, intricately waving the pairs of bones at the imperceptible speed of a hummingbird’s wings.
The crowd offered more oohs and aahs as the song progressed. In the end Flemons and Jenkins called it a draw and settled back into their seats before “Viper Man” and continued the evening’s steam locomotive momentum.
And yet, there’s something about a Carolina Chocolate Drops performance that a showgoer can never be prepared for. As one concertgoer said after Flemons and Jenkins settled their bones duel, “Man, these guys are something else.”
Throughout the evening the Drops performed music from regions of the world outside of the backwoods of North Carolina, and added a homegrown taste to Blu Cantrell’s 2001 pop single, “Hit ‘Em Up Style.”
Giddens, who explained that in the 1700s the second largest Gaelic population was in the Carolinas, sang an ode to one of her favorite styles of music in a Gaelic melody. Referred to as “mouth music” by Giddens, McCalla needed contribute only a minimum amount of accompaniment while Giddens enunciated words that dominated the song lyrically and sonically.
And as the Gaelic song slipped right into the evening’s set list, it proved Giddens’ cultural connection. The group sat on stage and covered songs from the ’20s (“No Man’s Mama,” “Boodle-De-Bum-Bum”), and Johnny Cash’s “Jackson,” among a few more songs plucked from Haitian, Canadian and Wisconsin cultures.
As a group thoroughly entrenched in music for music’s sake, they continue to share that passion through showing audiences what they’ve written, and mixing it with music they love. By the end of the 20-song set, the evening was more of a Carolina Chocolate Drop experience than a Carolina Chocolate Drops show.
Carolina Chocolate Drops at Lincoln Hall on May 5, 2012 setlist
- “Black Annie”
- “Trouble in Your Mind”
- “No Man’s Mama”
- “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad”
- “Briggs’ Corn Shucking Jig/Camptown Hornpipe”
- “Viper Man”
- (Gaelic medley)
- “I Hate a Man Like You”
- “Milwaukee Blues”
- “Rose Marie”
- “Let’s Go Dancin’”
- “Country Girl”
- “Would You Ever Come Back”
- “Cindy Gal”
- “Hit ‘Em Up Style”
- “Sourwood Mountain”
- “Cornbread and Butterbeans”
- “Read ‘Em John”