LIVE: Dom Flemons Wows Sold-out Caffe Lena Crowd 1/17/2020
Dom Flemons laughed so hard there were tears in his eyes. He’d just finished a stellar sold-out performance at Caffe Lena Friday night (January 17th). He was sweating profusely even though I was cozy with three layers of wool in the warm inviting coffeehouse while the outside temperature was 11 degrees and falling. I was trying to explain to him the conundrum I felt in trying to come up with words to describe what he does.
Dom on one level is an academician who has studied African American musical history that has been buried from the masses since before this country declared its independence. The very idea of what Dom does to some might come across like a can of peas: boring, pallid and tasteless. If these same people streamed his music, their perspective would be more akin to boiled frozen peas: brightly colored green and tasty. Ah, but seeing him perform is like eating organically grown peas freshly culled from their pods bursting with flavor.
If he thought I was nuts saying this, he didn’t show it. He shook my hand still chuckling.
As I said in my preview of this show, Dom makes African American musical history cool. He plays several different banjos and a set of bones that are more percussive than the drums on a James Brown hit single. He blows harp while rotating the harmonica around and around, and introduces his audience to a miniature Pan’s pipe that makes music that sounds like a flute.
Most important, he proves there’s much more to the African American musical lexicon than B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and though it’s been buried by a culture informed by slavery, it is rich and fundamentally as exciting as any act at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. In other words, he cracks the pea pod and what falls out is tasty music that borders on thrilling.
Since before America declared its independence, there’s been a portion of society that’s tried to minimize and/or outright eliminate African American contributions to culture. Slave owners justified their treatment of their slaves by declaring them as half-human property. And in spite of all the equal rights efforts from the end of the Civil War on, society, in general, continues to marginalize the musical contributions of the entire black race.
In 50 years of writing about African American music, I’ve documented that contribution based on my love of blues music. Slowly and painfully, this music has risen from being considered a subtext of folk music in the ’60s to being generally – if not universally – hailed simply as American music; it’s color secondary to its importance. Dom Flemons expands further on that perspective. And he does it without a tinge of bitterness or anger.
How interesting that a man of both African American and Hispanic heritage growing up in Arizona (hardly recognized as a cradle of African American traditions) should become a much-lauded flag waver for African American musical history.
One of his albums is called Black Cowboys, and he loves to offer his audience the statistic that one in four cowboys in the 19th century was black and that one of them, Bass Reeves, chronicled in song was a deputy marshal purported to have taken in 3000 criminals without ever taking a bullet and is said to have inspired creation of the Long Ranger.
As an aside, The Lone Ranger’s back story includes his being saved from death by the Indian Tonto. As we now recognize, American Indians are another race marginalized by the white American power structure, but Tonto becomes the masked man’s equal partner in radio episodes dating back to 1932.
In the recent film version of The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp is the film’s star. Depp plays Tonto, and the masked man becomes his foil. The film bombed badly at the box office. But in the TV show of the ’50s Tonto, played by Jay Silverheels, the grandson of a Mohawk Indian chief, often took on the role of the ignored “dumb Injun” who sits unnoticed in a bar spying on the bad guys as they plot their next nefarious deed. He then fills in his partner, the masked man, on their plans, and the red man and the white man team up to stop the criminals in their tracks, saving the good guy ranchers from their evil intent.
What is so exciting about Dom is that he’s dedicated his life to presenting volumes and volumes of African American music marginalized by an American society that has done its best to keep this music from mass exposure. That he does this with musicianship that is nothing short of dazzling is simply the frosting on the cake.
This guy plays a variety of banjos, acoustic guitars, harmonicas, spoons, and vocals with a level of enthusiasm and just pure love of the music that is infectious and enervating to his fans.
Flemons has played the Grand Ole Opry 24 times, and again this year will host the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame induction during the Blues Music Awards in Memphis. He told a rapt crowd at Lena’s that “the revolution is being streamed not televised,” in reference to the live streaming of the concert. He opened his set with “Old Cindy Gal,” after returning his banjo quipping “That’s good enough for folk music.” In other words, he’s seriously casual, making black culture fun and infectious.
His repertoire is wildly eclectic including Elizabeth Cotton’s Piedmont classic “Freight Train,” John Lomax’s “Wild Ox Moan,” and Tampa Red’s “My Baby Said Yes.” He even threw in an original “Hot Chicken” inspired by the fare offered in East Nashville, a section of Music City little known to tourists where Jimi Hendrix once hung out while on leave from the Air Force in 1960.
Also on the bill was Nora Brown, a young girl with an old soul who did a duet with Flemons getting one of the best audience reactions of the night, prompting Flemons to say old-time music is more than music. It’s about connections.