While not quite an overnight success, the Carolina Chocolate Drops (CCD) have catapulted from onetime buskers on Franklin Street with open cases for tips to a headlining engagement at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall with 1,434 persons paying top dollar. As part of Black History Month, Carolina Performing Arts is presenting a min-series in February called “African American Legacies in the Performing Arts: Then and Now.” CCD are a perfect starting point since they are both “then” and “now” and while most of the music they play originated with African Americans, it quickly assimilated into all cultures and races throughout the south and Appalachia.
An extra bonus for this evening’s concert was Luminescent Orchestrii, a group that has performed with CCD at many folk festivals and who would be joining them as a supergroup later in the evening. Lumi (as they refer to themselves) is similar to CCD in that they play “roots” music but their musical roots are primarily that of eastern European and Balkan countries. The very enthusiastic spokesman and guitarist for Lumi is Sxip Shirey (first name is not a typo), who plays a resophonic guitar. These instruments use metal cones to amplify the volume of acoustic instruments, the most famous maker being National. Rima Fand and Sarah Alden both play violin as well as sing, and bassist/singer Benjy Fox Rosen rounds out the members of Lumi. The old world modalities are refreshingly “new” to most of our ears and both violinists played as if they had grown up with this distinctively ethnic sound. All four members of the group sang in original languages ranging from Romanian to Yiddish and it sure sounded authentic to me.
It is always nice to have a battery of percussion instruments to augment the strings and voices, but that is not always possible. So, what if a human voice can realistically make all those sounds? Brooklyn native Adam Matta does just that as the human beatbox and he joined Lumi, and later CCD, to produce sounds from his throat that usually require a complete drum kit.
You can very often sense boredom and impatience for “warmup” acts as the audience anxiously awaits the group they came to see, but there was none of that with Lumi. This was an exciting and original group that could stand on its own at any venue, and also shared many of the same musical values as CCD.
The members of the CCD strode out onto the stage to a tumultuous reception from the sold-out Memorial Hall. It has been just about a year since the amicable departure of founding member Justin Robinson, but they have not lost a musical step in what many hardcore fans thought would be a nearly fatal blow. The members of this uniquely American band are: Dom Flemons, a down-home boy in the best sense of the word with an infectious exuberance whether he’s singing, playing banjo or guitar or even educating us about the wonders of this music; Rhiannon Giddens, a triple threat musician as a virtuosic fiddler, a good banjo player and a dynamic vocalist who can sing in nearly every style from earthy, raunchy blues to beautiful, sensitive ballads; and Hubby Jenkins, the replacement for Robinson who plays a variety of instruments including a rare resonator mandolin. Rounding out the group is Leyla McCall who sings but also almost looks out of place up there with a cello. Used instead of the usual acoustic bass, nothing is lost in the rich bass lines yet she also had several beautiful solos in the slower numbers.
There is such a wide variety of styles in what is often referred to as “roots,” “traditional American,” “black string music” or even “old-timey” and CCD does it all. They are one of those groups who for myriad reasons hit it big and has led many people who otherwise would not listen to this music to take notice and realize what they have been missing – I am one of those. Although there were several slower numbers, the majority of the concert was what is behind all of this: dance music. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that at the invitation of the group, the area right below the stage turned into a dance floor and soon security had to turn back some people. The energy in the hall was overpowering.
Despite, or because of, their huge success the past few years, you could tell that CCD were giddy at playing a “hometown” concert in stately Memorial Hall after playing for tips on the street literally a block away just a short time ago. Lumi came back and joined CCD for a mini set that ratcheted up the intensity even further. After three hours of playing, CCD came back for a final a cappella number which served as a cool down for the audience.