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Carolina Chocolate Drops Let the Spirit Move Them

It’s only been three years since the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the bluegrass band that brings to life the African-American bluegrass traditions that flourished in the Piedmont region of North Carolina in the early 20th century, last played at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts. But that’s considerable, given the band’s wide-ranging endeavors.

On Wednesday night, the Chocolate Drops return to the Hop for a sold-out appearance. Besides the two studio albums — Leaving Eden, released last year, and the Grammy-winning Genuine Negro Jig — and the one EP that the band has released since their last Hop performance, they’ve reached out to new audiences through a number of high-profile collaborations. Last year, the group contributed the track Pretty Little Girl to Voice of Ages, The Chieftains’ album celebrating their 50th anniversary, and recorded Daughter’s Lament for The Hunger Games soundtrack. The Chocolate Drops also figured prominently in We Walk The Line, a concert honoring Johnny Cash 80 years after his birth.

“We definitely have a bit of a higher profile than we used to. … Our audience is growing, which is fabulous, but we’re also getting asked to do different projects,” said Rhiannon Giddens, one of the founding members of the Chocolate Drops, in a phone interview from Greensboro, N.C., last week.

Wednesday will mark the band’s third appearance at the Hop, and will feature the spirited string jams they’re known for, while also reflecting the contributions of newer band members like guitarist Hubby Jenkins, who’s infused the repertoire with his jazz sensibilities, and cellist Leyla McCalla. The concert will also include a guest appearance by 12-string blues guitarist Dr. G.B. Burt.

“We hope to have a good mix of things in the show,” Giddens said. “That’s what we kind of usually do, and just kind of see how the spirit moves us.”

From the onset, the band has brought attention to the contributions that African-Americans made to bluegrass. Eight years after the original incarnation of the Chocolate Drops first played at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., the band can take at least partial credit for revealing a little-known musical tradition.

“I see a change in the lens that I don’t think we can take complete responsibility for, nor would we want to, but I think that we definitely play a part in getting that information out there and there are other people, also, talking about the banjo as an African instrument and getting that information out there,” Giddens said. “We have a good visibility and an ability to reach a large number of people, which is fabulous.”

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.