Written by Kailyn Warpole // Photography by Drechsel Photography
More than a year and a half ago, the old-time folk band Carolina Chocolate Drops dazzled fans with their first-ever performance at the historic Brooklyn Arts Center. On Monday, September 28, several members of the celebrated string band returned to the BAC stage as supporting players in the solo career of one of their own—the lovely and talented Rhiannon Giddens.
Before Rhiannon took the stage, cellist Leyla McCalla and her two-piece band laid down a relaxed, easy vibe for the crowd. Couples swayed to the rhythm and others tapped along to the mellow tempo. Low lighting helped create a dreamy atmosphere, which enhanced the listening experience of Leyla’s rich musical compositions.
Following Leyla’s performance, fans eagerly awaited the headliner. At half past eight, Rhiannon was welcomed to the stage by a cheering crowd. Accompanied by her five-piece band, including key members of the Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon thrilled fans by opening with the lively “Spanish Mary.” Wielding her banjo and rocking a stunning red dress, the singer was, in every sense of the word, a superstar.
The show was an eclectic mix of upbeat, toe-tapping numbers—like “Duncan and Jimmy”—and a few slow-paced, soulful ballads, such as “O Love Is Teasin’.” Whether it was tapping, rocking, dancing, twirling, bouncing, swaying, or grooving, regardless of song, Rhiannon and her band knew how to keep the crowd moving.
The musical arrangements changed for nearly every song, and the audience got a chance to see each performer’s broad range as a respective instrumentalist. During “Black is the Color,” a crowd favorite, Rhiannon scatted and cellist Malcolm Parson stepped forward to play the melodica for part of the song, inciting cheers from fans. For the equally upbeat “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” Rowan Corbett captivated with the bones while Hubby Jenkins grooved on the mandolin and Rhiannon rocked the banjo. Rhiannon also mesmerized with her performance of Scottish Gaelic “Mouth Music”—which was so well received by the audience that she and the band decided to promptly add the Carolina Chocolate Drops hit, “Hit ’Em Up Style,” to the set list.
Between songs, Rhiannon made sure to give her audience a taste of what inspired the music she was playing, from historical events to memorable people. “I find my inspiration in lots of different places,” she says. “Things that I read, people that are alive now, things that are going on in the world, things that went on in the world two-hundred years ago….Just kind of the human spirit, basically.” She also provided a few history lessons on the instruments she used, demonstrating her passion for her craft.
Following the performance of their final song, the band was enthusiastically called back onto the stage for an encore. After thanking the crowd, Rhiannon broke out her tambourine and said she couldn’t end the show without playing “Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” Having developed an easy connection with the audience throughout the show, she did a call-respond, asking fans to sing back to her. They eagerly obliged, and the result was a spirited and harmonious collaboration. When the song ended, Rhiannon and the band lined up for a group bow and exited the stage to a lively ovation.
For Rhiannon, life as a musician goes beyond the love of performance—it’s her calling. “It’s what I’m supposed to be doing with my life,” she says. “I feel like I’m fulfilling God’s work, or whatever you want to call it—the universe’s work, the world’s work, the infinite….That’s the way I connect and that’s the way I communicate to people, so I feel good that I’m able to do that for a living. I’m blessed.”