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North Carolina has a long, rich tradition of folk music. Some of the foremost musicians from the state (Randy Travis and the late Doc Watson) have their roots in the music of back-porch sittings and pig pickings, when folks would gather around to sing and dance. The North Carolina based Carolina Chocolate Drops, brought this music to the stage on Tuesday night to a very nearly full house. The ensemble's style transcends definition – are they a folk group? Country? Bluegrass? They are all of these things, and display a flexibility of performance so excellent that it would be hard to come by such amazing skill anywhere else. Comprised of four performers (Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Hubby Jenkins, and Leyla McCalla), they gave a performance that will not be soon forgotten by those who attended.
The concert got off to a little late, but very rousing, start with a Joe Thompson tune called "Black Amy." Very quickly the group made their supreme skill obvious to the audience. The energy level of the performance started high and never flagged throughout the evening. It was also the first opportunity that Rhiannon Giddens showed off her vocal abilites. According to Mrs. Giddens' website, she was classically trained at the Oberlin Conservatory, and this was certainly obvious – the power, clearness of diction, and projection of a classically trained singer were there. These skills certainly worked to her advantage.
Throughout the entirety of the program, the group showed off their instrumental capabilities. Each player picked up the banjo at least once, and all soloed on the instrument. Mrs. Giddens even showed the audience how banjos evolved from relatively humble beginnings (by playing a replicated 1840s instrument). Dom Flemons' strong tenor singing contributed further to the performance in such songs as "Milwaukee Blues" and "Go Down To Jackson." Every performer had incredible vocal talent, and nothing they sang was ever out of place in the show.
Some very energetic audience participation was also included on the songs "Boodlie-Bum-Bum" and "Don't Get Trouble in Your Mind." Mrs. Giddens even commented on the fact that North Carolina audiences know how to sing well. She also remarked that she had been singing this music ever since she was a small girl, and that keeping it in the family was very important to her. On that note, her sister Lalanie Herrington joined her onstage for a gospel duet - "I Know I've Been Changed." It was but one of a few very moving songs on the program. Others included "Leaving Eden" and "The Highwayman."
However, the evening ended on a very upbeat note, with the audience joining in on "Sorghum Mountain," then followed by a lengthy standing ovation. A wonderful time was had by all, and I suspect that the Carolina Chocolate Drops will be warmly welcomed again in Greensboro. I would strongly recommend hearing this group when they make their next appearance in Raleigh at the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts on September 21. For details, see our calendar