Concert Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops, Grace and Tony – @The Handlebar

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Had the privilege of watching two great acts in the folk music scene on Wednesday night (March 5) at The Handlebar in Greenville.

First, I must note the unusual demographics:  Other than classical music concerts, which seem to draw none but retirees these days, my concert experiences usually put me in contact with people in their 20s and 30s.  But this show was at least 50% Boomers and older –and I was really surprised.

(Side note: When the retirement crowd forms a major part of your show audience, expect to see a LOT of people going back and forth to the bathroom. That’s what I learned.  Less drinking, more peeing. lol)

Grace & Tony, a husband & wife team, bring quirky humor into their guitar and mandolin music which they call “punkgrass.”  They sing about everything from lost love to pretending to be superheroes, and they do so with a lot of personality & character & fun.

I usually don’t expect to run into Katy Perry tunes at a concert like this, but Grace & Tony covered “Extraterrestrial” and they were all the way into the first chorus before I could name why my brain was recognizing the tune but I was completely confused about this song. ha! A cover!  A punkgrass cover of Katy Perry. It was great.   I’ll take all the punk grass covers they want to provide of radio hits.

Try “November” to get a feel for Grace & Tony’s tunes.

I must also add that one of the coolest things EVER happened to us at this show.  At one point, Grace mentioned that the most adorable 8 year old had gone to their show at the Kennedy Center in DC, and written them a review.  Well, we happen to know that 8 year old quite well. 🙂  She proclaims Grace & Tony to be her favorite band, and I can see why.  (This kid is gonna grow up with killer music taste.)

I was pulling out my iPhone to record anything that happened next (in case it was connected to Infinity) when Tony said, “Are the Rameys in the house?  Infinity wants us to give you a shout out!”

So … uh….. that was cool!

The Handlebar crowd was happy to enjoy Grace & Tony, and I think they picked up some fans that night. But truly this was a Carolina Chocolate Drops crowd – the roar was apparent when the foursome took the stage.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops
The Carolina Chocolate Drops

The CCD are an old-time string band from North Carolina.  They play American roots music — old tunes from the hills, from folk music, from the fabric of American life in the 1800s and early 1900s.  Picture amazing fiddling, fantastic rhythms, legit banjo or guitar, a meld of bluegrass and blues and Irish, all grounded by the rich tones of a cello being played like an upright bass.  And the lead singer’s voice is a knockout!  (So is she. Rhiannon is one pretty lady.)

I love this kind of music because you learn so much when listening at a show. Usually the players will give you the name of the tune they’re about to play and the mentor who taught it to them, or the player whose version is the most famous.  I love that this music is passed down person to person – you can’t just pick up American roots music from a book or formal music lessons. You go to where the masters live and work, and you play with them until the tune is part of you.  Then you make it your own, and the music carries on.

The CCD are passionate about bringing this musical heritage back to Americans — it serves as the foundation for our pop & rock music, but many of us don’t know the tunes or stories, and we don’t come together as a community around live music and dancing like we used to. (Our loss.)   Plus, much of the old American music is rooted in African music –  slaves were stripped of their culture, but they didn’t lose everything. And their fellow Americans were happy to borrow great musical ideas, even instruments (like the banjo) from African music and incorporate it into American folk music.  Rhiannon and her band are working to bring those stories back to mind.

As for the show — well, it was just fantastic.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops are some of the finest musicians I’ve ever seen in person.  Rhiannon can light up a room with her voice — she can be sultry or soulful or playful or on fire, in turn. Hubby, who plays many instruments, took an occasional solo to play country blues, a rough and tumble guitar-based blues that crackles with energy.  And the whole foursome puts everything out when performing – drawing the crowd into the dance of the strings.

The CCDs played for nearly 90 minutes before wrapping up their set. But this Carolina crowd wasn’t going to let them go so easily. The deafening roar demanded two encores from the musicians.  And if you ever get to see the Chocolate Drops live, you’ll be hooked too.

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