Bentley's Bandstand: Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Unthanks, Big Brother & the Holding Company Featuring Janis Joplin

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Carolina Chocolate Drops

Carolina Chocolate Drops, Leaving Eden. We all have our Taj Mahal musical moments in life, when American blues and folk music turn off the main highway and head for the backwoods. Once there, away from big cities and the high-pressured pop world, it is possible to wander down country roads and find the place where music may well have started in this country, with jigs and stomps and hollering and all kinds of carrying on. Carolina Chocolate Drops started as young Southerners who see the whole scope of sounds as fair game to pursue, from five-string gourd banjo runs to hip-hop havoc, and in that pursuit forge their own fine name.

Founding members Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens are joined by recent addition Hubby Jenkins to push an appreciation of home grown songs into brand new territory. It's not unlike jazz musicians who take popular music into the stratosphere. Carolina Chocolate Drops have essentially erased the rulebook and allowed freedom to become their watchword. With producer Buddy Miller they take an arsenal of acoustic instruments to songs like "Boodle-De-Bum-Bum" and "Briggs Corn Shucking Jig" and turn them into something that sounds attuned to the world of 2012. It's a little bit of magic, but then again, that's always been music's sleight-of-hand wonder — to make air become real.

There are times in the evolution of American music when a new light gets turned on. It's different but it's the same, if that makes sense, and everything that comes after it is able to play off that change. In the new world, what groups like this and others are doing is grabbing the past and shaking it into the future. It's a recurrent occurrence and can be counted on to jack up the excitement level for those who want to go there. There was recently a blues night in the White House, and to watch the President of the United States sing along as the young Gary Clark, Jr. performed the classic "Catfish Blues," well, a new man really had come in and it was time to let him do the Popcorn. Take it to the bridge.

The Unthanks, Diversions Vol. I: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons. It's a never-ending excursion into the outer limits when music like this appears. Sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank had made other albums, but for this one chose songs by Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons to inspire their artistry. They couldn't have made wiser choices, either, because both Wyatt and Antony Hegarty have a way of exploring the edges of musical beauty, often to great surprise. The Unthanks zoom in on that beauty to uncanny effect.

Robert Wyatt first appeared as percussionist in the Soft Machine, and after blazing trails with those English experimentalists found a solo path to glory. Wyatt's songs veer from light to dark, but always grab the soul by the collar and do not let go. Antony Hegarty is someone who writes his own rules, singing with such unique style that he has created a new category, causing open listeners to marvel at what they're hearing and seeing. It's not everyone who gets to sing "Candy Says" in Lou Reed's band.

The singing sisters are fearless in the way they inhabit songs like "Man is the Baby" and "For Today I am a Boy" by Antony. This is not an easy ride, but the gorgeous tone of their voices also allows them to go deep and find the place in these songs where emotions exist without defense—not an easy place to be. In Wyatt songs like "Lisp Service" and "Free Will and Testament," there is a little more armor built into the lyrics, but it's still all hands on deck. Piano, strings, trumpets, and drums add color, but in the end it's about vocal expression and exposure. We should give total thanks for the Unthanks, because they always take us all the way.


Big Brother & the Holding Company Featuring Janis Joplin, Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968. Hold on, because the live tape vault of Augustus Owsley Stanley III, better known as Bear, is being officially opened up and this live set by one of San Francisco's finest is an electrifying journey into the heart of psychedelia. Bear was the man who turned on the world in the '60s with his nonpareil LSD, the kind that right before the sky split open with rainbow sculptures made it feel like minuscule workmen had moved inside your teeth and taken up a small-scale construction site specializing in porcelain design. It really was overwhelming. But Bear also happened to be an artist with sound, and recorded all the shows he engineered.

Big Brother & the Holding Company had turned the corner nearing their end with Janis Joplin, and were burning on rocket fuel the night of June 23, 1968 at the Carousel Ballroom. The big hall had been opened a few months earlier as a communal experiment run by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother. It was their own massive playroom, so naturally was doomed to a short run. But oh what fun it sounds like the bands were having before Bill Graham took over and renamed it Fillmore West.

The members of Big Brother are peaking musically, weaving a semi-chaotic blend of steely and shimmering guitar runs with street-funky rhythms, powering Janis Joplin to the moon. All the signature songs are here: "Summertime," ""Piece of My Heart," "Ball and Chain," and she sounds like she came to completely kick ass. Joplin is at her very best, and sounds like she knows it. There would be two other bands and world domination in very short order before her death in October 1970, but on this San Francisco night all the stars aligned, and the Bear was right there to capture it all. Turn up, tune in, and drop on.


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Bill Bentley got his first drum set in 1965 and still has it. He's been a deejay, record store clerk, publicist, writer, concert promoter, record producer and a&r director, sometimes all at once. He's worked at KUT-FM, Austin City Limits, L.A. Weekly, Slash Records, Warner Bros. Records and Vanguard…

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