ARTS & IDEAS: For the past few years, you could say there's been a bit of a resurgence in interest in traditional American musical styles, and with it, a move to do to American music again what Dylan did to it a generation ago: to combine the sounds of old, weird America and the music lots of people listen to today.
Buck 65 took a stab at it with Talkin' Honky Blues in 2003. The Low Anthem has been steadily rising since 2007 by using the sounds of old country, gospel, and blues in ever new ways. And, of course, there was Mumford and Sons' breakout performance with Dylan at the Grammys, turning the stage into a 1960s-style hootenanny, which hearkens back even further into the past.
One of the more interesting groups going after the ancient-modern alchemy is the Carolina Chocolate Drops—Grammy winners themselves for their 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig—and if you were to describe the various musical acts as a race to perfect the formula, to my ears, the Chocolate Drops might be in the lead.
The Chocolate Drops, then composed of Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Justin Robinson, started off almost like historians. The band's first album, Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind, found them paying homage to the great black fiddle-banjo duo Joe and Odell Thompson (the title of the album is taken from one of the Thompsons' signature tunes) while also placing them in the context of other string band and jug band acts that were, more or less, the Thompsons' contemporaries. But even on that first album, there was a hint of what was coming: the Chocolate Drops weren't just recreating old recordings, but playing them like they wanted to, infusing the old music with their own spirit, energy, and sensibility.
They followed that up with years of relentless touring, during which they grew and developed their sound. A lot. A collaboration with the Luminescent Orchestrii, a band doing similar things with Eastern European music as the Chocolate Drops were doing with Americana, led to some of the most hip hop-inflected work for both groups. Giddens proceeded to work with Sxip Shirey, guitarist for the Lumiis and a composer in his own right, and appeared on Shirey's Sonic New York. The result of all this for the Chocolate Drops was Genuine Negro Jig, and the Grammy that followed.
Justin Robinson left the band after the Grammy win—he's currently heading up this fascinating project—and Flemons and Giddens took on Hubby Jenkins to round out the trio, with support from beat-boxer Adam Matta and Leyla McCalla on cello.
The project recorded with this lineup, Leaving Eden, is their strongest album to date. The sound still partakes heavily of the old American music the Chocolate Drops have been swimming in, but the modern elements are stronger and everything comes together even more seamlessly than before, in a more compelling way.
They're right to put "Country Girl" forward as a single. The unusual instrumentation—fiddle, banjo, mandolin, cello, and beat box—lays down an unmistakably modern groove, letting Giddens's beautiful voice slide and soar. But then the album's opener, "Riro's House," marries stringband music to a rolling snare that shows the connection between Appalachia and New Orleans while also rocking pretty damn hard. "West End Blues" delivers a spare slink. And the title track is a moody slice of gorgeous country.
Leaving Eden is another step forward in the band's evolution, another signpost in these musicians' pilgrimage across the American landscape, and New Haven should consider itself pretty lucky that we're one of the stops. Fittingly, opening for the Chocolate Drops will be Caravan of Thieves, one of New Haven's most successful musical exports in recent years.
IF YOU GO: What: The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Caravan of Thieves When: 7 p.m., June 23 Where: The New Haven Green Tickets: Free Info: artidea.org
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