Carolina Chocolate Drops: Bowery Ballroom 4 April 2012

Just before the last song I turned to rtb and said, “Why aren’t we following the Carolina Chocolate Drops around the country?” and rtb didn’t know why. It’s a mystery – this is a band I’d happily give my life to. mollyT said that YouTube does not prepare you for just how great this band is. I didn’t get a chance to ask melisub or violaleeblue what they thought but it sure looked like they enjoyed themselves. And thank you! Kenny for reserving two tables for us so we could really enjoy this show far from the sold-out crowd. rtb and I were there early and it was fun watching people trying to score a table and trying to figure out why we rated. In one case someone came right up to me and asked. I was disappointed that they didn’t think I was a celebrity.

Openers Bombadil made a ghostly entrance in their blinding white suits. They are also from North Carolina and they also switch instruments throughout their set. The music is different than CCD – it’s based more on their vocal harmonies but still fit into the folk genre. Everything on the internet indicates that the band has four members but there were only three musicians performing last night. An interview I found with (drummer/producer) James Phillips confirms that Bryan Rahija (guitar) is going to graduate school and is now a satellite member, so he was the missing person. The rest of the band is Stuart Robinson (keyboards) and Daniel Michalak (electric bass). But, as I said, they switched instruments – there was also a ukulele in there – and they sang a cappella for one or two songs with some very nice harmonies. The songs were funny and sweet – about awkward love, the laundromat, and the South and sweet tea.


The last time I saw The Carolina Chocolate Drops headline was in February 2011 but they made such an impression on me that I hadn’t realized it had been so long. At that show it was announced that the absolutely marvelous Justin Robinson was leaving the band and Hubby Jenkins (who also played that night) would be replacing him. Jenkins (guitar, mandolin 5-string banjo, bones) is from Brooklyn and newest member Leyla McCalla (cello, banjo) is from Queens (now lives in New Orleans) and both are very good fits. McCalla’s family is Haitian, so she sang a creole song with Rhiannon Giddens adding a beautiful harmony. The cello adds a nice bottom to the twangy North Carolina sound. Giddens (5-string banjo, minstrel banjo, fiddle, kazoo) sang a beautiful Gaelic song. I don’t know if her accent was accurate but her voice was pure and you could almost smell the heather. Other original member Dom Flemons (4-string banjo, guitar, harmonica, bass drum, bones) danced with his guitar and gave short history lessons for a lot of the songs. I would have loved if they had had hours to play just so he could give complete stories about each song and their histories.

CCD opened with “Old Black Annie” and the dancing (whether standing or sitting) never stopped. Giddens didn’t do any solo dancing, unfortunately, but since she just had a baby she is forgiven. Her 4yo was in the back for part of the set delighting the audience with her dancing. When Flemons went to take her off stage the entire audience protested.

You can see her here if you look closely – sort of a ghostly figure in the back:


Flemons did a dirty ragtime song that had been written during the early career of gospel songwriter Thomas Dorsey. Giddens and Flemons performed a smoking version of “Jackson” that will be in a PBS special about Johnny Cash. We got to sing the chorus for a couple of songs including “Sourwood Mountain.” They did a one-song encore – “Read ‘Em John” – about celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation.

Giddens voice is otherworldly and everyone on stage is such an over-the-top great musician. This is a band that needs to be seen live and needs to be seen by everyone.


By Carene Lydia Lopez