Concert review and set list: Banjos, bones and the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Sheldon Concert Hall, Friday, November 16
If you have never seen the Carolina Chocolate Drops live, you must immediately fill up your biggest thermos with tar-black coffee, get in the car and follow them to Indianapolis for their gig on Saturday.
Otherwise how will you know that Dom Flemons kicks his legs in the air when all that pickin’ and stompin’ gets him too excited to sit still? Or that the clackety-clack noise keeping time is genuine cow bone? You’ll hear the harmonies and the finger picking, but you won’t see the flat footing, jigging, back somersaulting, and hat tricking. You won’t get to help out by shouting the “hi ho!” on songs like “Sourwood Mountain.” You won’t feel the warmth of the band members, each of whom appears both to take the art of performance very seriously, while sincerely enjoying themselves, each other, and the audience.
The Sheldon was packed — a grayer, more suspendered, more impressively bearded crowd that I normally see at shows, but it was obvious everyone who was there knew the history and the material backwards and forwards. For instance, I’m surprised how many people sang along to every word on “Cornbread and Butterbeans.” (Maybe a little less surprised on the Woody Guthrie number, “Goin’ Down the Road, Ain’t Gonna Take This No More”). And since it’s St. Louis, I know everyone loves a good song or two about public intoxication, especially when it involves “Old Corn Liquor” (which I regret to inform you that I have tasted, and I am pretty sure my stomach lining has not been the same since).
One member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops introduced every single one of their songs with reverence. Most were traditional roots or folk tunes, although “Country Girl” is an original written by Rhiannon Giddons. Each one of the musicians is well versed in the ethnomusicology of African-American roots, music you have undoubtedly heard interpreted by old-timey folk and country singers. For instance: Were you aware that the banjo is an African instrument? Did you know that the last Gaelic speaking church in North Carolina (where the majority of Gaelic-speaking Scots emigrated in the 17th and 18th centuries) was a black church? Did you realize a minstrel banjo was strung with guts?
Speaking of minstrel: While introducing “The Briggs Banjo Instructor,” Giddons announced that the band was taking the audience back to 1855 — “Just musically speaking,” she acknowledged ruefully. The minstrel banjo (of course she has one) is a fretless instrument stretched with goat hide and strung with the aforementioned guts. It sounds like a regular banjo, but a little deeper. White musicians began noticing this instrument around the 1840s, learned to play it, and it eventually became an integral part of the minstrel show. This song was also the first of the night to feature Flemons and Hubby Jenkins on cow bones. Holding two bones in each hand and clacking them together rapidly, the two hammed it up onstage while Giddons picked out “The Briggs Banjo Instructor” on her genuine, goat-hide minstrel banjo.
Flemons knew his crowd, and made several references to St. Louis institutions that swelled hometown pride. “This was recorded by my friend Pokey LaFarge,” said Flemons by way of introducing “In the Jailhouse Now,” during which he also improvised, “I was down at the Royale, but I’m in the jailhouse now.” It’s easy to see the connection between the South City Three and Carolina Chocolate Drops — for one, both Flemons and Mr. LaFarge have voices made for a 1930s phonograph. Flemons also informed us that he’d purchased his favorite porkpie hat in St. Louis many years ago, and kindly tipped his current porkpie hat to “100 more years of the Sheldon.”
There were a couple of standouts on a night of many standout songs, and one was cellist Leyla McCalla singing and playing banjo on an old Haitian song called “Rose Marie.” It was all in Haitian Creole, but McCalla explained that the gist of the song was about a woman who falls in love with a flaky musician. (Who hasn’t?) This gorgeous, lilting little number saw the Drops rocking back and forth, Caribbean style — down from the mountain and onto the beach at night, where you could fairly see women with flowers in their dark hair swaying in the breeze.
Giddons’ take on two Scottish highlands songs, sung in Gaelic, enthralled the crowd. I looked around during these numbers and saw almost every face completely rapt, every pair of eyes trained on the stage. Both were two types of Scottish country dance songs, the first a strathspey in somber 4/4 time stripped down only to Giddons’ voice and a draw of the bow across the cello strings. The second, a reel, started out faster and got faster still, with Flemons beating a bass drum to keep time and Jenkins going wild on the bones as Giddons breathlessly wrapped her Carolina drawl around the words in a beautiful language no one knew. “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” the folk rendering of the Blu Cantrell song, seemed especially to resonate with the female half of the audience, which Giddons acknowledged, laughingly, as she introduced the song as one about revenge to much whooping and cheering.
Finally, if musicians know nothing else they surely know they can count on a rendering of a Johnny Cash tune to whip the crowd into a frenzy. “Jackson,” a song that CCD recorded for Austin City Limits in honor of Johnny Cash’s 88th birthday, had everyone singing along and a couple people leaving their seats to dance in the aisles. During “Sourwood Mountain,” the last song, the crowd was in full ovation mode halfway through and already calling for an encore.
That encore was swiftly delivered, with Jenkins — along with much of the audience — singing “Cornbread and Butterbeans” (a song that makes me hungry) and then an a cappella delivery of “Read ‘Em John,” an old Georgia song about the Emancipation Proclamation.
After gracious bows, the Carolina Chocolate Drops exited stage left and the crowd filed out of the creaky Sheldon seats into the cold November air. At least three people were heard to say, “I should learn how to play the banjo” and others asking each other what the name of this or that traditional folk artist was who the band had referenced.
It’s one of the greatest pleasures of a music lover (and probably a musician) when other people are as touched by a sound as you are, the sound impelling you to learn, to explore more — or simply to dance.
(First song missed due to author and companion’s being stopped and asked for directions, and deciding to escort an elderly couple to the Black Rep.)
Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind
The Briggs Banjo Instructor
In The Jailhouse Now
Goin’ Down the Road, Ain’t Gonna Take This No More
Po’ Black Sheep
Boodle de bum bum
Scottish strathspey (the title is in Gaelic and I have no idea what it is)
Scottish reel (see above)
Old Corn Liquor
Buck Creek Girls
Hit ‘Em Up Style
Cornbread and Butterbeans
Read ‘Em John