It was easy enough to get that time-tunnel feeling at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan when Catherine Russell (pictured) and the Carolina Chocolate Drops shared a bill. Nearly all of the songs comprising Russell’s set, drawn largely from her forthcoming Sentimental Streak album (World Village), were originally performed by pre-rock-era jazz and blues icons such as Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Pearl Bailey and Louis Armstrong, and her arrangements rarely deviated from those of the source material. Opening for Russell, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a trio bent on reviving the pre-blues African-American Piedmont string-band tradition, made a glorious racket with their fiddles, banjos and resonator guitars.
Backed by piano (Mark Shane), guitar (Matt Munisteri) and standup bass (Lee Hudson), Russell didn’t so much interpret as pay tribute. Unlike so many other vocalists today, she isn’t obsessed with the Great American Songbook so much as the Great American Singers. It’s telling, in fact, that when she introduced each song, Russell usually cited not its writer but the performer on whose original recording she was basing her rendition. If she can be accused of anything, though, it’s that she doesn’t bring much new to these oldies-the overall sound is contemporary, but Russell sees her role as presenting these old songs as they were intended. And she’s very good at it.