June 24, 2014 | Brian Palmer | Good Times
New Carolina Chocolate Drops lineup gets a baptism by fire
Change is inevitable, especially in bands. Members come and go—it simply comes with the territory. Hubby Jenkins—who plays the guitar, mandolin, banjo and bones for the Carolina Chocolate Drops—knows this all too well, as he joined the band just before they started recording their fourth album, 2012’s Leaving Eden.
“Leaving Eden was an interesting album because [fiddler] Justin [Robinson] had just left the group, and they had already decided to record with Buddy Miller, and had even picked the recording dates,” Jenkins says. “It was an interesting time to be coming in, because they were ready to do different things with the new members. So it was a trial-by-fire period.”
Jenkins is not exaggerating when he says there was a steep learning curve. He suspected he needed to get familiar with the band’s most recent work, but soon discovered that was just the beginning.
“When I joined, we had about a month where we didn’t see each other, so I emailed them and asked, ‘What should I be working on? Stuff from the last album?’” he recalls. “They were like, ‘We’ll send you some stuff,’ and what they sent me was their entire repertoire! So I worked on a lot of stuff and tried to memorize as many songs as possible.”
And it only got crazier from there.
“On my first official day, within the first hour, we went to do a radio show, and then the next day we went to a gig, and a month later we were in the studio doing the album. So it was very much like ‘bam’!” Jenkins says with a laugh. “It was wild, because I was really nervous.”
Despite his anxiety, Eden became another fine addition to the Drops’ discography. The old-timey front porch folk of “Boodle-De-Bum-Bum” is a delight, while “Riro’s House” is a rousing, country-style jam that is a perfect fit for a hoedown. And when singer Rhiannon Giddens lets out her soulful vocals on the dizzying bluegrass number “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” she brings down the house in short order. The album is alive with the soul of African- American musical traditions, a constant goal for the band no matter how many personnel changes take place.
“Bands are always changing and evolving, but one of the main missions of the group is to be an all-black string band where we talk about the roots of African-American music, and be a part of that stream of musicians who are keeping that alive,” Jenkins says. “That’s what we’re looking for, members who understand and have a passion for that mission.”
Recently, the band had to go looking once again. At the end of 2013, longtime multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons left to pursue a solo career, and cellist Leyla McCalla— who had joined for their 2012 tour slate—exited for the same reason. In their places are cellist Malcolm Parson and multi-instrumentalist Rowan Corbett. It’s forced the Drops to evolve once again, Jenkins says.
“Whenever you bring in somebody, it creates a new vibe,” he says.
Carolina Chocolate Drops will perform at 7 and 9 p.m. Tuesday, July 1, Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25/advance, $30/door. For more information, call 427-2227.