The worn, wooden floors of the music hall vibrated as boots stomped out the beat, the room pulsing with the clap of hands and intermittent brays of whistling and whoops. Adorned in his signature old-timey clothes — flat brimmed hat, suspenders and plaid shirt — Dom Flemons bellowed out the lyrics, “Going down the road, feeling bad, Lord, feeling bad.” His long fingers picked and strummed the strings of his guitar, a harmonica hanging around his neck, time suspended as if the crowd had been transported for the moment back to the golden age of folk and blues.
Flemons took the stage with his friend and touring partner Brian Farrow on March 31 at Muddy Creek Music Hall in Bethania on the outskirts of Winston-Salem. Formerly of the Grammy-winning old-time string group Carolina Chocolate Drops — which also featured Greensboro’s Rhiannon Giddens — Flemons has performed across the United States, upholding the old-timey folk and blues tradition in his performances. His setlist for the evening comprised a number of songs off his latest solo record Prospect Hill, as well as numerous covers by such ragtime and vaudeville musicians as Maggie Jones, Doc Watson and Martha Simpson, giving his own bluesy touch to the melodies.
Muddy Creek Music Hall was forced to open the back hall for seating, having sold out the show before the doors opened for the night. Audience members stood along the edges of the room, all the chairs and tables filled, leaving only a small amount of space for the couples who would periodically stand and begin to dance. And even with almost two-and-a-half hours of music, the crowd never let up their cheering and clapping as Flemons sang.
Farrow, a multi-instrumentalist, has performed alongside such acts as Jonny Grave, Paperhaus, the Hackensaw Boys and Letitia Van Sant. Most recently he has been performing with Flemons on his winter tour, the 31st bein g the closing night after almost three weeks on the road, before they could both return home for a short break.
Towards the end of the show, Farrow laid down his bass and took up the fiddle as Flemons plucked along on his guitar. The pair did a cover of the song “Sitting On Top of the World,” an old tune originally written by the Mississippi Sheiks, covered through the years by several acts including, most famously, Howlin’ Wolf, Doc Watson and the Grateful Dead.
In between songs, as he switched between an array of guitars, banjos, harmonicas and spoons, Flemons gave brief history lessons on the music, taking the audience through the past as he explained where various songs originated and how they evolved into what we hear now.
“It’s the music I love,” Flemons told the crowd as he tuned his banjo. “I’ve studied it almost all my life, and I think the history of where it all came from is as important as the music itself.”
As the show ended, the crowd rose to a standing ovation, filling the hall with applause and adulation for the night’s inspiring performance. And when the cheers failed to cease after a few minutes, Flemons and Farrow came back out under the lights for an encore. The crowd roared even louder as they saw Flemons clutching the spoons between his fingers. With a brief four-count, Farrow pulled his bow across the fiddle and the hollow clack of the spoons echoed in precise rhythm and skillful speed. The crowd remained standing, clapping along as the duo performed a few original instrumental Appalachian folk songs, adding a thrilling pulse of energy to end the night.
After the show, Dom Flemons stood by a table of his records and CDs, taking the time to meet and pose for pictures with everyone who had come out, even staying a few hours after the show so he could meet his fans.
“It began as a mistake, I guess,” Flemons said, explaining how he fell in love with this brand of music. “When I was a kid I found a few records of the Beatles and other popular bands and I loved them. But I kept following their songs back to who had inspired them, and back and back until I found the old blues guys, and that was it.” As some of his own inspirations, Flemons cites such musicians as Phil Ochs, Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin’ Wolf and Carl Perkins.
“It’s been just amazing,” Flemons continued. “This tour has been wonderful. We’ve gone across the country and are finally making our way back home. I’ll be back in Hillsborough by this time tomorrow, but just waiting for when we’ll hit the road again.”
He smiled as he adjusted his hat and posed for one last picture with a group of fans.