The February 2nd concert by the black country-roots group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, in the Allen Room at New York’s Lincoln Center, was a mostly sweet, slightly bitter affair. When the North Carolina-born trio – Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, all singers and multi-instrumentalists trading banjos, fiddles and clay jugs, among other things – appeared for an acapella encore, “Travellin’ Shoes,” Giddens announced it was Robinson’s last show with the band. (He’s going back to school.) She presented him with a jug carved with their three likenesses on it, to remind him of their six years together “if you ever feel the urge to play it.”
But Giddens also noted, earlier and proudly, that the Drops were up for a folk Grammy this month, for their latest album, Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch). And the group, which specializes in the Piedmont style of East Coast country blues, worked hard to soften the setting – that back wall of glass overlooking Central Park – into something closer to a song circle: tracing the genealogy of the songs at length, suggesting remedial reading (Flemons got a startled hush when he recommended a 2005 book, Slavery in New York) and jumping out of their chairs to shimmy and stomp.
The basic rule of the Drops’ repertoire is that everything has some black and country in it, and you can work a jug and the clacking of cow-rib bones into almost anything. Their set included a delighted blitz through “Jackson” by Johnny and June Carter Cash, the bluegrass nugget “Salty Dog” – which Flemons noted was first popularized by the New Orleans jazz trumpeter Freddie Keppard – and the Drops’ signature rearrangement, with mountain-mourning fiddle and Giddens’ keening vocal, of Blu Cantrell’s vengeful-diva hit, “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” There are no words to “Snowden’s Jig,” also titled “Genuine Negro Jig” – none are needed. Gidden’s plaintive fiddle, Flemons’ rattling bones and the heavy-march rhythm captured the powerful memory and sorrow of a people dancing under the weight of a history not of their choosing.
The Drops introduced Robinson’s successor at the show, New York guitarist-mandolinist Hubby Jenkins, who took the lead on a version of Robert Johnson’s “From Four Till Late.” And the group has just released a new EP on Nonesuch, a collaboration with the Luminescent Orchestrii, a New York-based gypsy-tango-klezmer-punk band. Expect more history and plenty of dancing.