CRESCENT AND FROST with DAVE CELLA and ALANA KURTIS AND THE TUMBLERS at Mitzi’s Sister (1554 Queen West), Saturday (January 26), 9 pm. Free. 416-532-2570.
THE CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS with the GOOD RIGHT ARM at Hugh’s Room (2261 Dundas West), Tuesday (January 29), 8 pm. $20-$22.50. 416-531-6604. Rating: NNNNN
It’s just one of those fortuitous scheduling coincidences that two of the most exciting young banjo-bent bands on the scene – Brooklyn’s Crescent and Frost and Durham’s Carolina Chocolate Drops – happen to be playing Toronto gigs at different clubs just three days apart.
The two groups might not seem to have much in common. Carolina Chocolate Drops draw inspiration from the rural African-American string band sound of the early 20s, as you’ll hear from the kazoo-tooting rave-ups on their Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind (Music Maker) disc, while Crescent and Frost are gently pushing modern bluegrass to urban contemporary extremes. Yet both are finding favour with more adventurous bluegrass fans tired of the same old twang.
No doubt the recent surge of interest in the Carolina Chocolate Drops is partly due to their connection with the Oprah Winfrey-produced feel-good flick The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington, in which the Drops contribute to the soundtrack and make a cameo onscreen appearance.
“Everything is happening really fast right now,” says four-string banjo picker Dom Flemons while signing autographs after a sold-out show at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. “But the most amazing thing is how much of it seems to be just being in the right place at the right time.
“We had this meeting with our manager to talk about how we could get our music used in films, and the very next day the music director from The Great Debaters wanted to know if we’d be interested in recording some covers of songs by the Mississippi Sheiks and Blind Willie Johnson for the soundtrack.”
So far the Drops haven’t had much success connecting with African-American listeners, but Flemons is hopeful that will change.
“Fiddle and banjo music simply isn’t in the black consciousness and hasn’t been for about 70 years, so I think people need to be informed about this music, and it helps if they see us play. We’re starting to get requests for songs from the film, which is cool, but it’s too early to tell what overall effect the film might have on our audience.”
While Crescent and Frost haven’t had the good fortune to get their tunes placed in a Denzel Washington movie, their roundabout connection to Norah Jones hasn’t hurt.
As it turns out, their sombre-sweet Make It Home (Ohmyyes) disc was re-corded at the Coop, Jones’s home studio in New York, with a few of her bandmates guesting.
“Dan [guitarist Dan Marcus] is Norah’s backup tour guitarist,” explains singer/songwriter Maryann Fennimore, “and he’s a good friend of her steel guitarist, Lee Alexander, who suggested that we record the album at Norah’s home studio. She stopped by near the end when I was doing vocals – not to make suggestions or give me pointers – but just out of curiosity, I think.”
Like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Crescent and Frost realize their unique take on the string band concept will require some time and in-genuity to find an audience. Making the right repertoire choices can make a huge difference.
The Drops have gotten such a positive response to their cover of Blu Cantrell’s Hit ’Em Up Style, they’ve decided to record and release it as their new single. Crescent and Frost should consider doing the same with their radical revision of the Supremes’ Stop! In The Name Of Love, which has proven to be a surefire crowd-pleaser wherever they play.
“Seeing the surprise on people’s faces in that moment when they recognize the song, like, ‘Oh my god, it’s the Supremes!’ is always great. That’s definitely a fan favourite. And I enjoy doing it, too. It’s emblematic of what we all do as artists: we take things done by people who came before us and recontextualize them for a contemporary audience by adding our own personal spin.”
Don Flemons explains why he believes that playing African American string band music in a style typical of the Carolina Piedmont region of 1928 could be relevant in 2008.
Are you concerned that covering a contemporary song might raise questions about the authenticity of what the Carolina Chocolate Drops are doing?
THE GREAT DEBATERS (Warner) Rating: NNNN
This is one those instances where your enjoyment of the soundtrack doesn’t depend on whether you liked the film. It seems like the film’s star and soundtrack co-producer, Denzel Washington, intended not only to assemble a selection of acoustic versions of blues and gospel songs appropriate for a period piece set in 1935, but also to record an album that could stand on its own.
Washington succeeds here because he has the smarts to involve credible singer/musicians like Sharon Jones, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Teenie Hodges, David Berger & the Sultans of Swing and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who could be the breakout stars of this soundtrack. It certainly stands head and shoulders above your typical tossed-together Hollywood movie companion. Of course, since the music is designed to support the onscreen action, some of the performances aren’t quite as intense as they should be (Hart regrettably turns Rev. Utah Smith’s roof-raiser Two Wings into a cradle-rocker), but Jones’s boisterous Sister Rosetta Tharpe-style blast through Up Above My Head is a church-wrecking delight. Sounds like the Dap-Queen has an amazing gospel record in her waiting to bust out.