Electic practictioners of jazz and blues turn up at the Space

by Jordan Green

Happenstance plays a significant role in events on the one-block strip of Greensboro bohemia known as Tate Street. As is her wont, gallery director Jaime Coggins finalized the lineup for a music festival three days before the opening of a five-night run after corralling a disparate group of musicians, and opened the doors to the aptly named Space for any stragglers the night might cough up.

“It almost happened blindly,” she says, on the first night before Chapel Hill old-time aficionado Dom Flemons and the jazz-inflected Bengoshi Duo begins their sets. “You just initiate it, you put it out there, nurture it, and it will grow. Just like horticulture.”

UNCG’s student radio station, WUAG FM, which is housed in the Taylor building up the street from the Space, accounts for some of the serendipity.

“Strangely enough, the group that I’m with, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, were doing a show for WUAG,” Flemons recounts before the his performance. “That was last Sunday or the Sunday before last. I was sitting on the street playing my guitar right next to the Space. Jaime walked up and said, ‘Do you want to be part of this festival?’ I said, ‘Sure.'”

Flemons’ pairing with Bengoshi Duo might seem somewhat esoteric, but together they cover the ground staked by the “blues and jazz fest” conceived by Coggins. The 24-year-old Flemons’ oeuvre is based on a kaleidoscope of early 20th century primitive string-band musics and he plays with a wild and joyous streak. The matter of Flemons’ blackness both challenges preconceptions about old-time music being the exclusive preserve of white hillbillies (and academic musicologists), and reclaims African-American’s rightful place in the tradition.

In contrast, the Bengoshi Duo plays a refined and subtle form of jazz with indie-rock inflections that leave plenty of contemplative space, not unlike the white walls that set apart the stark monochromatic paintings on the gallery wall. The two acts may share at least one similarity: They look back to forge a way forward.

Bengoshi Duo got their start last fall playing a reception at a Japanese steakhouse in Burlington. This marks the first gig that they haven’t been asked to provide background music. A recent UNCG graduate, guitarist Josh Kimbrough grew up steeped in Chapel Hill’s indie rock scene, where he played in the band Mortar & Pestle. Bassist Travis Diehl, an English major at UNCG, comes from a traditional jazz background. The two met through WUAG.

“The nature of this band has changed,” Diehl says. “It’s not pure jazz anymore, if it ever was.”

They run through five songs: a cover by indie-rock avatar Stephen Malkmus, an odd standard and a couple original instrumentals still only tentatively titled. Diehl’s bass lines flow like tender ruminations, and Kimbrough’s spare guitar solos create an impressionistic texture like the detail of a Renoir painting. Together, the duo creates a series of tasteful sonic benedictions.

The revelation of the evening is undoubtedly Flemons though.

With about five people seated on the floor in front of him, Flemons gives a lesson on the expressive uses of the harmonica. His version of the “fox chase” has him hollering go go go and baying like a hound. “Then you get the harmonica to talk for you,” he says. “You make it say something like, “Mama….”

Then he pulls out a banjo, his principal instrument, which he plays with a slide. Playing an original song called “Looks Like Another Lonely Moon,” the banjo talks and cries in Flemons’ hands, and his voice warbles into a fully expressed yodel as if answering and reinforcing the instrument.

He lights a stick of incense, lodges it in the band of his hat which rests on a table beside him, and introduces a dance tune called “Take Me Back.” His body convulses with the rollicking rhythm, reeling off spare, little proto-rock and roll solos that sound like the Band’s Robbie Robertson reaching back towards Robert Johnson and sings, “I’ll build your fire, I’ll cut your wood.”

“We’re doing a strange cultural thing,” Flemons tells the audience near the end. “Not a lot of people think of black people playing the banjo, but black people were doing this for a couple hundred years. At the turn of the century half the string bands were black; it just kind of got phased out of the community.”

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