I’m always impressed by Sheffield’s knowledge of offbeat Americana.
My diary has lately been cleared of almost everything except preparations for moving house but the missis and I took an evening off for a run down the motorway to The Greystones, in the Ecclesall area of Sheffield, to hear Rhiannon Giddens and Leyla McCalla. The billing that caught our attention mentioned the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who have had some UK exposure via Jools Holland, and that turned out to be fair enough. All-rounder Giddens, who trained as an opera singer, is one of the founders of the Drops, and McCalla, who plays a cello like a cross between fiddle and bass, has lately become a regular collaborator with the core three.
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Giddens (left) and McCalla
Even with the Chocolate Drops connection to help the publicity, however, it was a surprise to find the venue packed tight, for what amounted to a concert of obscure folk music.
A lot of the audience were middle-aged or older, like us, but by no means all. There was probably a fair turn-out from the university music department, who would be inclined to live at that end of Sheffield. But we are talking about close to a couple of hundred people, paying £16 a head for a duo who have never had what most of us would think of as a hit.
Once again, it turned out, we had driven from Leeds for a gig organised by Stuart Basford, a former copper who handed in his helmet after stewarding a Springsteen concert and has since made a living out of introducing alt.Americana acts to an audience they would never have guessed was there. Sometimes, it isn’t, mind you. I remember seeing the splendid Tom Ovans put on a valiant show for me, my wife, Stuart and Tom’s roadie. But he has obviously learned where to rattle the woodwork.
I found the Carolina Chocolate Drops interesting, when I first came across them, because it was so rare, for such a long time, to find young black musicians showing any interest in black musical heritage. A few old bluesmen kept on turning out the stuff that transfixed British kids when they first heard it, in the 50s and 60s, but their audiences got whiter and whiter. Their own kids found all that Mississipi po’boy stuff embarrassing, I guess, and it was only old whitey dads like me who bothered to argue that there was a lot more to it than that.
Eventually, even our own kids stopped listening. I remember circulating some classic r’n’b in my son’s record club, the Vinyl Anoraks Circle, and coming up against some bafflement in his friends. To them, it sounded crude and rough.
Anyway, all of a sudden, when the album Genuine Negro Jig made it to the UK, in 2010, here were the Carolina Chocolate Drops, digging up material which Alan Lomax would have rejected as a bit esoteric and playing it with banjos and jugs.
They were all handsome and, I think, all university-educated – certainly Giddens and McCalla are – which means they sometimes come across more musicological than musical. Proficient though they obviously are, in so many directions, their records include more interesting doodles and explorations of ideas than fully-formed songs. And the Sheffield concert was a bit the same. Leyla McCalla is a middle-class New Yorker but has been exploring her Haitian heritage and by the time she had sung a couple of Haitian folk songs and Giddens had re-imagined a slave mother watching the Unionist army approach, and the two of them had improvised a tune to a poem written by a man called Langston Hughes, you did sometimes wish momentarily for Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. However, they were charming, brilliant and occasionally quite funny too, and there many beautiful moments.
The audience was the one they asked for when they chose their path and it was one which suited them. It listened solemnly, clapped appreciatively, whooped with good intent and went through a whole two hours without feeling the need to take photographs of itself or the performers. It also, amazingly, sang in tune and clapped in time when invited. It is not often you are proud to be part of an English audience.
You can watch quite a few video clips for free at http://www.carolinachocolatedrops.com/videos
Most popular CCD track on YouTube is Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine – http://tinyurl.com/437rtvk/