As MASS MoCA celebrated its 11th anniversary on Saturday, the influence of Joe Thompson was everywhere.
Not the Joe Thompson who’s been the director of the gargantuan contemporary art museum since it first opened, however. Rather the traditional black folk fiddler Joe Thompson, who’s been the primary inspiration and wellspring of repertoire for the delightful Carolina Chocolate Drops for the past five years.
While most visits to the museum for cerebral, conceptual visual or performing arts are aimed at the head, the CCD’s performance was aimed directly at the feet, and despite the fact that there wasn’t much room to dance at the sold-out show, the aisles were clogged with dancers by the time the trio swung into the hot-footed hoedown of “Sandy Boys.”
On stage, the threesome of Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson were churning out one vintage foot-stomper after another – primarily traditional black string band music from the hills of North Carolina. They traded instruments around – banjo, fiddle, jug, resonator guitar – and once in a while they’d spice things up with another musical flavor like the kazoo (Giddens on “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine”), snare drum (Flemons on “Durang’s Hornpipe”) or autoharp (Robinson on the waltz “Likes Likker Better Than Me”).
“It’s dance music. It’s sing-along music,” explained Giddens. “You don’t have to wait for us to invite you. Just jump right in.”
“If you’re going to join in, just make sure that you’re with us and not against us,” added Flemons. “It’s community music.”
Indeed, it was folk music – pure and sweet and simple – and the crowd didn’t need any more coaxing on selections like “Ol’ Corn Likker,” “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind,” “Sourwood Mountain,” “Cornbread and Butterbeans” and “Genuine Negro Jig,” the latter being the title track of the band’s new album.
But it wasn’t all straight-outta-the-mountains, clap-along, hootenanny stuff, either. Giddens offered a lovely a cappella folk ballad – sung in Gaelic. Robinson added a bit of human beat-boxing to Blu Cantrell’s 2001 Top 10 hit, “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” helping to ease the song’s transformation into rousing, back-porch banjo romp.
Led by guitarist-vocalist Simone Felice (the former drummer in the Felice Brothers), the Duke and the King opened the show with a 45-minute set that veered from emotionally moving (the gospelesque “Union Street” and “Don’t Wake the Scarecrow”) to overly contrived (“The Morning That I Get to Hell” and the closing cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless”). The Catskill Mountains quartet – which also featured Bobby Bird (bass, guitar), Simi Stone (fiddle, keyboards) and Reverend Loveday (drums) – was loose and funky, often simply too ramshackle for their own good.
Read Michael Eck’s review from The Times Union
THE CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS SET LIST
Peace Behind the Bridge
Ol’ Corn Likker
Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind
Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine
??? (solo a cappella Gaelic tune)
Likes Likker Better Than Me
There’s a Brown Skin Girl Down the Road Somewhere
Genuine Negro Jig (Snowden’s Jig)
Cornbread and Butterbeans
Hit ‘Em Up Style (Blu Cantrell)
THE DUKE AND THE KING SET LIST
If You Ever Get Famous
The Morning That I Get to Hell
Don’t Wake the Scarecrow (Felice Bros.)
A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke)
Helpless (Neil Young)