Carolina Chocolate Drops – review

Cecil Sharp House, London

The new American acoustic movement continues to gather pace, with last week's experimental concert by the Punch Brothers followed by this energetic set from their Grammy-winning label mates, who attracted the biggest crowd I have ever seen to that sometimes austere home of English folk music, Cecil Sharp House. But Carolina Chocolate Drops were perfect for the venue. Steeped as they are in the folk tradition, they have also developed the folk club art of introducing each song with a mix of history lesson and humour. They provided a reminder that pre-war string band music was played not just by white country artists but also by African-American musicians, and their revivalism involved both classy playing on fiddle, banjo and guitar, and a no-nonsense, stomping approach worthy of the early skiffle bands.

The Chocolate Drops have changed personnel in recent months, with founding members Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens now joined by another multi-instrumentalist, Hubby Jenkins (who switched between guitar, mandolin, banjo and slick, percussive use of bones), and by Leyla McCalla on cello. Their first set included songs from their forthcoming third album, starting with an exhilarating workout on Kerr's Negro Jig, with Flemons then showing off his slinky playing on an old blues tune, Boodle-De-Bum-Bum. Giddens displayed her vocal range on a cheerfully upbeat divorce song, No Man's Mama, and a finely sung country ballad, Leaving Eden, the story of a dying mill town.

They treated the second half with even more energy and variety, switching from a song by 1920s banjo hero Charlie Poole to a lament from Haiti by McCalla, accompanying herself on strummed cello. Then there was a burst of rapid-fire Gaelic mouth music and a Celtic-sounding Canadian fiddle tune from Giddens, followed by a rousing, old-time treatment of Beyoncé's Hey Ladies, which was surely a first for Cecil Sharp House.


Robin Denselow

The GuardianTramp

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