Dom Flemons Delves Deep Into American Songbook at Iron Horse

Photo by Michael Weintrob

Photo by Michael Weintrob

There’s no question that Dom Flemons is deeply steeped in Americana. The former Carolina Chocolate Drops guitar and banjo player is well versed in the blues, hokum, various folk styles and even old-school rock ‘n’ roll, as he demonstrated Thursday night at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton.

Backed by a drummer and bass player, Flemons surveyed more than a century of American music, pairing his own songs with tunes from some of the giants of roots music, including Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, and some who are less well-remembered. Switching among guitar, banjo and bones, with occasional accents from harmonica, Flemons was a versatile and engaging performer during his 70-odd minute set.

Wearing a wide-brim hat and pants hiked up with suspenders, Flemons dazzled with a clacking, virtuoso turn on bones and harmonica on “Cindy Gal,” and raced through jaw-dropping banjo licks on another tune. Flemons evoked the weariness of life on the road with his own “Been Away Too Long” and sang with his drummer and bassist gathered around the mic on “Polly Put The Kettle On.” Occasionally, especially at the start, the songs felt too mannered, as if Flemons was treating them gingerly, as museum pieces instead of the living, and often lustful, songs they are.

Eventually, he loosened up. Flemons displayed the breadth of his knowledge by performing snippets of dead-on impressions of Buddy Holly, Dave Van Ronk, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. He brought a raucous juke-joint feel to his own “Hot Chicken,” and brought out the none-too-subtle bawdy side of “Ain’t It a Good Thing” (chorus: “ain’t it a good thing to have more than one, one woman?”).

Flemons ended on a well-known note, inviting up the openers, Tennessee “punkgrass” group Grace and Tony, for a sing-along on the Depression-era gospel song “I’ll Fly Away.”

Grace and Tony opened with 30 minutes of dark, often belabored folk songs that worked best when the couple (she played banjo and mandolin, he played guitar and they were backed by cello and drums) blended their voices in harmony.

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