Funky college professors who change your life … The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Grace & Tony at Ann Arbor’s The Ark

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Carolina Chocolate Drops [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Effervescent. Witty. Intelligent. … Force of nature! These are the best words I can devise to describe Carolina Chocolate Drops’ performance Wednesday night at Ann Arbor’s The Ark.

If you aren’t familiar with this group, stop reading this right now, go to YouTube and check out their stuff. I have never seen so raucous a crowd at The Ark as I did last night, jubilant and joyous and energized by the band’s world-class musicianship and delightfully irreverent intellectualism.

This group of multi-hyphenate performers have mined hundreds of years of musical history: folk, roots, hip-hop, spiritual, blues, country, bluegrass, and even Celtic rhythms to create an intoxicating brew of acoustic, string driven, pop delights.

The drum!

The drum!

While the lineup of the group has undergone some changes in recent years, lead singer Rhiannon Giddens is a mainstay. (One of the night’s biggest laughs came when she stated, “A certain pop star came on the scene a few years back [the similarly named Rihanna] … and pretty much ruined my life … I wear clothes, though.”

Giddens is a marvel. As much accomplished actress as she is exceptional vocalist and amazing instrumentalist, she breathes life into songs that veer wildly from a 200 A.D. war chant to Blu Cantrell’s one-hit-wonder “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops).” She makes every song her own. With wide-eyed wonder, heartfelt intelligence and charm, and an impish smile, she delivers raw roots vocals with operatic technique, all while playing nearly every stringed instrument on stage from mandolin to banjo. Many of last night’s selections focused on the mistreatment of women through the ages and the essential reclamation of female power. That may sound stuffy. It ain’t.

The band!

The band!

The talents of this quartet cannot be overstated. The Chocolate Drops’ nearly two hour set flew by. Opening with the propulsive and gripping “Country Girl” through their encore “Cornbread and Butterbeans” (which was aggressively  – and quite humorously – requested all night long by one notably vocal fan), the set was a dynamic and earthy array of the group’s best work with a handful of undiscovered gems tossed in for good measure.

I felt like I was at a fabulous party that I never wanted to end. The Chocolate Drops were relaxed and authentic, gracious and inclusive. Their repartee between songs (and during!) was both instructive and hysterically funny, like that of funky college professors whom you adore for making you laugh … and changing your life.

(The Chocolate Drops also gave some local dancers the opportunity to hit the stage and interpret their music as they were playing it. If there ever was a textbook definition of a “happening,” this was it.)

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Grace & Tony [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Opening act, alt-country/folk/steampunk husband/wife duo Grace & Tony may have been an acquired taste for some. I loved them! By the time they played their last number, they had completely won me over. (I listened to their CD November in the car today on my way to work, and I highly recommend it – ethereal, zany, and compelling.)

Tony White (brother of The Civil Wars’ John Paul White) knows how to work his hipster winsome charm in service to songs inspired by such diverse topics as Stephen King’s book Salem’s Lot, Frankenstein’s monster, and a couple of serial killers who sold cadavers to universities in the 1800s. These topics sound ghoulish, but Tony (and Grace!) sold these cracked ditties with such saucy glee that the audience was in the palm their hands by the time the Chocolate Drops took the stage.

Thanks to our dear pal Rachel Murphy who introduced all of us to the Carolina Chocolate Drops music. And I, in turn, hooked my parents on the group and have given several copies of their spectacular CDs as gifts.

A plug for The Ark: this is a fabulous, nonprofit venue staffed by volunteers, bringing in internationally known performers many times a week. Definitely check out their schedule, and take in a show there first chance you get!

________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: Inside Llewyn Davis

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 5 days remain until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s Review of Inside Llewyn Davis: “I’ll tell you what I think. Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with a theme that shoots through much of the Coen Brothers work: frustration over the venom creative people spew at each other in their dogged competition for limited resources, attention, and fame. Actors and singers and writers and painters and dancers are all a bit broken, and they make their way into careers that are often doomed from the start, compounded by a cruelly competitive system that rewards the schemers and abandons the weak.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Folk music is hateful stuff: Inside Llewyn Davis

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I have to start with a disclaimer …

I cannot tolerate a movie where animals are hurt or in peril. I knew going into Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from the acerbic yet cynically humanistic writer/director team Joel and Ethan Coen, that a runaway cat is a central narrative element. Hell, the orange tabby is on the damn poster, clutched in the titular anti-hero’s arms as Llewyn saunters down a busy New York street.

Have you ever tried to hold a cat in one arm, a guitar in the other, while walking down a bustling thoroughfare?!? Exactly.

I will offer for my fellow animal advocates (spoiler alert!) that the cat is ok. Sort of.

A cat runs out a fire escape window and disappears. A cat reappears. A cat makes it home. A cat takes a road trip to Chicago. And a cat (or something) has a limp-inducing near miss with a car on a snowy road. Might be the same cat. Might not. I’m not sure what all these orange cats signify, but the Coen Brothers love their oddball metaphors, even if PETA (or yours truly) is inflamed in the process.

(As a side note, for viewers like me who, yes … of course! … worry about cinematic animal safety much more than that of human counterparts, there is a website for us. Thanks to Kim Elizabeth Johnson for alerting me to it.)

So, with that point made, how is the movie? Quite good actually. It is one of the Coens’ most sedate offerings, bleakly transporting viewers to grungy Greenwich Village in the 1960s where the folk music scene appears to be atrophying before the ascent of pop derivatives like Bob Dylan and his ilk.

Llewyn, played wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, is a failed troubadour, whose singing partner is long gone and who subsists on a steady diet of cigarettes, self-loathing, and couch-crashing at a succession of annoyed friends’ apartments. Isaac is a marvel, resisting every urge to make Llewyn one bit redeeming or likable. He is a wretched human (with a lovely voice) consumed by a toxic brew of pretension, insecurity, jealousy, bitterness, condescension, and holier than thou artsy-fartsiness.

(Oh, how I’ve known too many dudes like this fellow – folks who are so got by their own disappointments that they have to kick sand in the faces of any and everyone else with the tiniest shred of talent or even the slightest bit of creative happiness. Ah, that felt better.)

Often with a Coen Brothers film (in fact their best ones – like Barton Fink or the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men), you’re left wondering: what was their intention exactly? This film, like others in their oeuvre, offers their trademark circular non-ending ending, and, as we departed the theatre, I overheard a few folks asking, “What was that about?”

I’ll tell you what I think. Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with a theme that shoots through much of the Coen Brothers work: frustration over the venom creative people spew at each other in their dogged competition for limited resources, attention, and fame. Actors and singers and writers and painters and dancers are all a bit broken, and they make their way into careers that are often doomed from the start, compounded by a cruelly competitive system that rewards the schemers and abandons the weak.

With this acidic lens, the Coens turn their filmic gaze on folk music, one of the more self-satisfied forms of artistic expression. At surface, folk music has always been about gathering the tribe to celebrate our commonality; yet, in reality, it is usually a vehicle for some twee turtleneck-wearing phony to look down his or her nose at middle-class plebes who are scraping by with their staid corporate lives and suffocating mortgage payments.

The Coens dive right into the heart of that notion, and not with the campy satire of Christopher Guest’s similarly themed A Mighty Wind, but with the unsympathetic bruised heart of a Sidney Lumet or a John Cassavetes with just a smidge of their own asburdist twinkle.

The supporting cast is populated with assorted odd ducks stepping on the heads of their fellow “artists” in hopes of making a buck or two. Justin Timberlake is adequate in a throwaway role as an earnest folkie who writes a really godawful song with unsurprising populist appeal. John Goodman is sheer brilliance as a mean-as-a-rattlesnake jazz musician who shows his contempt for Llewyn and his chosen genre with a steady stream of vitriol, leveled at what he deems inane and amateurish musicianship. The normally exquisite Carey Mulligan struggles a bit with a one-note role (and equally bad wig) as an ambitious ladder-climbing folkie who may or may not be pregnant with Llewyn’s child.

Previously mentioned feline concerns aside, I recommend Inside Llewyn Davis to anyone who has found themselves lost in a creative bubble, not sure whom to trust or where to go. As they say, karma will get you, and perhaps that is the ultimate lesson we glean from Llewyn’s neglect of cats and people. What goes around comes around. And folk music is hateful stuff.