Dom Flemons – Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus | Album Review

Dom Flemons – Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus

Omnivore Recordings

44 songs on 2 CDs – 87 minutes

Dom Flemons has been a busy, busy man since decided to launch a solo career after a nine-year run as a founding member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. He’s been piling up honors ever since as actor, singer and multi-instrumentalist who consistently and successfully breathes new life into the songster tradition of first-generation bluesmen.

An Arizona native who now calls Washington, D.C., home and know known as “The American Songster,” Flemons has always been a fan of early Americana, immersing himself in 78s and LPs, and studying and playing guitar, harmonica, pan pipes and banjo alongside Taj Mahal, Marty Stuart, Mike Seeger, Guy Davis and others.

A North Carolina Music Hall of Famer who launched the Chocolate Drops in 2005 along with Rihanna Giddens and Justin Robinson, Flemons has racked up numerous honors in both the folk and blues worlds since going off on his own in 2014.

Released as part of the African American Legacy Recordings Series in coordination with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History, this beefy, 44-track collection reprises two previous solo releases — the 14-track Prospect Hill, the third album in his catalog — and What Got Over — a nine-track EP issued only on vinyl in 2015 to celebrate Record Store Day – and includes 12 new cuts, entitled The Drum Major Instinct.

An acoustic blues and roots treasure trove with multiple musical alignments, Flemons is accompanied here by Guy Davis (guitar, 12-string, harmonica, mandolin, banjo and percussion), Ben Hunter (fiddle and percussion), Keith Ganz (electric and acoustic guitars and banjo), Ron Brendle (upright bass), Kobie Watkins (percussion) and Brian Horton (clarinet and saxes) with Joe Seamons, Pura Fe Crescioni and Jason Richmond adding backing vocals.

The Prospect Hill recordings occupy the entire first disc, opening with “’Til the Seas Run Dry,” which comes across with a traditional jazz feel, before moving on to the familiar “Polly Put the Kettle On,” a jaunty version that hits of Sonny Boy Williamson instead of its 19th Century British origins. The humorous “But They Got It Fixed Right On” – a staple for both Georgia Tom and Tampa Red – follows before Dom launches in to “Have I Stayed Away Too Long,” penned by Broadway hit maker Frank Loesser and familiar to fans of old-school country through covers by both Jim Reeves and Willie Nelson.

The aural texture remains interesting throughout as Flemons launches into a trio of originals – “Sonoran Church Two-Step,” “Too Long (I’ve Been Gone)” and “Marching Up Prospect Hill” – before revisiting Frank Stokes’ “It’s a Good Thing.” Three more tasty self-penned entries – “Grotto Beat,” “Hot Chicken” and “San Francisco Cannon” – follow before Gus Cannon’s “My Money Runs Out” brings the album to a close.

“Big Head Joe’s March” served as the debut of Flemons’ new six-string banjo of the same name when the song served as the opening track of the EP as it does here. The record store set includes covers of Charlie Poole’s “Milwaukee Blues,” Blind Boy Fuller’s “Keep On Truckin’,” alternate takes on three tunes from the Prospect Hill release and a trio of originals – “Clock on the Wall,” “Going Backward Up the Mountain” and “What Got Over” – before the debut of 12 cuts that appear for the first time.

As the title implies, The Drum Major Instinct is heavy on percussion and sparse on words throughout. “Wingtips,” a call-to-action drum solo, serves as a brief opener before Dom picks up can fife for a new take on “Going Backward Up the Mountain” and versions of “Sugar Dance” and “Grotto Beat” before “The Songster Arrives.”

The texture changes for “Georgia Drumbeat” with Flemons on guitar before an electric version of “Clock on the Wall” aided by harp and slide guitar, “Hot Chicken” by banjo, a laid-back, fingerpicked guitar version of “Too Long” an uptempo take on “What Got Over” and two tunes – “The Grand Manifesto,” driven by Big Head Joe, and the claw-hammer guitar pleaser, “Blue Butterfly” – to close.

Sure, there’s plenty of repetition in the material here, but Dom Flemons is a modern master of old-school sounds, and the new, instrumental takes are a breath of fresh air for the versions that precede them. Available as a two-CD set or digital download, this one’s a treasure for anyone who prefers their tunes with sounds of a bygone era.

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