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 genre...it 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 voice...song 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!
http://www.carolinachocolatedrops.com/ (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)
Free and legal downloads: