Sunday, March 9, 2008

Live music review: Carolina Chocolate Drops, Newcastle Cluny 07/03/08 (plus Lady Caroline Mary)

Bluegrass / soul / blues / gospel / country / general musical bastardisation (with full respect to African-American musical traditions) that is a TREAT to listen to!

Contrary to how it may seem, I do attend gigs at venues other than the Cluny. But when, via their affiliation with the Jumpin' Hot Club, they book such great bands (and in such a brilliant, and small, venue) as Carolina Chocolate Drops, a wee jaunt out is very hard to resist!

In contrast to the last gig review I wrote (the last proper, not pretendy gig review, anyway), I was a good 20, maybe even 30, years younger than half the audience here tonight...well, aside from the hoardes of lezzies, presumably out in force to cheer on local lass Caroline Mary at her debut solo Cluny support slot.

Well known round these parts, at least in lesbian circles, as a member of Mush and The Camp Vamps, Lady Caroline Mary is now setting out all alone, just her and a banjo...well, and a guitar too, actually.

Her first five or six songs were played on the guitar, before she took to her banjo, which is when things became even more promising. This is very girly music, with songs about 'pussy cats' and lines like "a tray of fancies lies on the sideboard and I didn't know I could take one". In fact, she would make a great childrens' party entertainer, with her rather charming way of rhyming along as she goes and use of words such as "fandango". But listen a little more intently and you realise that often the sentiments proffered, whilst perhaps disguised as cutesy, can be quite cynical. Sometimes, however, they just stay about "I'm so sorry your allergies made you my house".

Caroline could easily be described with that much overused word 'quirky', introducing songs with lines like "This is for any ghosts" and (the definite high point of her set) her "self-indulgent" low-key, banjo cover of Kim Wilde's Kids In America. Titters, and chorus of supportive lesbians providing the "Woah-oh"s aside, this really did work quite well!

Relatively subdued until that went down so successfully, Caroline appeared to relax a little for the final song of her set - "This is a song I wrote after a visit to Australia. It's called Australia" - and now that she had 'warmed into' things, there was something generally more engaging about her performance. But I'm a sucker for the banjo...and Caroline herself isn't too shabby!

Carolina Chocolate Drops took to the stage shortly later, and it was immediately apparent that they were friendly, likeable people...this, for me, is half the battle. I hate it hate it hate it when you go to see a band and they look like they can't be arsed being there, or look at the audience like they smell bad. No such nonsense with the Chocolate Drops...they told us about their drive up from Chichester and how they expected us to join in. I thought that they may be a little disappointed with the Cluny crowd if they were expecting full-on American-style honky tonkin', but we did our best in our inimitably British way!

They spent the set swapping instruments (fiddles, banjo, guitar, jug, castanets, snare, kazoo...even the latter was played skillfully!) and getting up to do seemingly impromptu, although possibly quite practiced, jigs and dances. At one point, Rhiannon Giddens (who got into contra dancing after graduating from university) was lucky not to behead herself when she jumped up on a speaker and danced for us...complete with 'knee swap' moves...oh yes!

Their musicianship and natural ability was astounding, their love and knowledge of music past and present impressive. This is not traditional music, in the sense of sticking to any specific comes across, I suppose, as bluegrass, due to the instruments employed, but borrows equally from old school black singers and bluesmen. They talk passionately about reigniting black banjo-playing heritage and named themselves in homage to the 1920s fiddle and mandolin band Tennessee Chocolate Drops. They even covered a traditional Irish tune for piano and flute with their fiddle, banjo and guitar line-up (the song Mountain Dew...possibly my favourite of the entire set). And Giddens has a wonderful, soulful 5 of the set was an a capella number about Lazarus, on which she reminded me of Ruthie Foster and incorporated gospel influences. There was a good old stomp and clap along from the audience, proving that the Cluny crowd were capable of a little interaction...if in a relatively restrained, stiff upper lip way.

Justin Robinson was incredible on his fiddle (bringing to mind the line from Old Crow Medicine Show's song Wagon Wheel - "born to be a fiddler in an old-time string band"), and blew me away (pun entirely intended) when he kept up his jug playing (which sounded like spit and raspberries, but provided some rhythmical accompaniment) for an entire song...that guy must have an awful lot of breath in him! On the very same song, we were treated to a full-on rock and roll style howl by Dom Flemons...

...who looked like a premature front porch-sitter in his check shirt, braces (as in breeches) and glasses.

I must reiterate before I sign off just what a likeable group of people Carolina Chocolate Drops are...they put everything into the performance, care about engaging their audience, and are hugely talented and entertaining. This, Giddens told us, is their "first tour overseas...we're completely addicted to tea now". Hopefully that means they'll be coming across the pond to visit us again soon. This is a band that you simply have to see live! (where, if you click on 'media' and then 'sound clips', you can listen to seven of their songs)

And please, please buy their music:

Heritage (enhanced CD - their first and only European release, not available in the States)

Dona Got A Ramblin' Mind

As part of their set, the Chocolate Drops did a great cover of Blu Cantrell's Hit Em Up Style...with banjo, natch!
Here is a video of them performing it at the Great Lakes Folk Festival in August 2007 (courtesy of HomerMFishbulb over at YouTube)...the sound quality isn't great on this, but it should give you an idea of how fun their cover is!

Free and legal downloads:

mp3: Starry Crown -Carolina Chocolate Drops

mp3: Rickett's Hornpipe - Carolina Chocolate Drops

mp3: Short Life of Trouble - Carolina Chocolate Drops



OK, I just watched that vid and that Hit 'em Up cover was awesome! I loved the bluegrass-meets-breakbeat combo!

Divinyl said...

Good eh? I love how they're partly so trad but, like you say, there's beatboxing style stuff thrown in alongside banjo and jug! They were such fun!

Anonymous said...

Saw them in Chichester the night before -- utterly astounding.
A new "studio" version of "Hit 'Em Up Style" has just been posted on Youtube

Divinyl said...

Hey Anonym ous. Thank you for taking the time to comment :o) They really are a treat live aren't they? I would definitely go to see them again! And I shall also check out that YouTube clip...I was impressed by their version, and the quality wasn't great on the one I posted, but it was all that I could find at the time!