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Martin Simpson & Dom Flemons Martin Simpson & Dom Flemons
Album: Proudly Present A Selection Of Ever Popular Favourites
Label: Fledg’ling
Tracks: 12
Website: http://www.fledglingrecords.co.uk

For many years, Martin Simpson has been a premier exponent of roots and blues from both sides of the Atlantic, and an expert guide to the correspondences between English and American folk musics. I’ve always felt that there’s little that Martin doesn’t know about the indigenous songs and tunes, but here he meets his match when sharing the stage with Dom Flemons, formerly of award-winning afro-American combo Carolina Chocolate Drops. The inspired teaming was the result of a commission from the EFDSS, back in 2014, for an artistic collaboration between these two kindred spirits to explore the journey of our shared folk music and the changes between their respective musical traditions.

The recordings appearing on this album are taken almost exclusively from performances during Martin and Dom’s joint tour last autumn, on which they demonstrated an immediate personal rapport and a deep-rooted common affinity with the music of the early American songsters of whatever sub-genre – and an extensive (and, believe it or not, partly unsuspected) shared repertoire. There’s an abundance of natural musical repartee in the guys’ gleefully invigorating renditions of a veritable ragbag of folk, blues, jugband, ragtime and plain old good-time pieces. I think it’s fair to say, however, that the disc’s title may be taken with a generous dosage of healthy irony, since around half of the selections could, I feel, hardly be termed “ever popular favourites”, since they emanate from comparatively obscure sources known only to aficionados (and some not even quite that well-known!) – certainly I’d not come across If I Lose, originally recorded in 1925 by Texas blues singer Maggie Jones, and Martin’s arrangement of the song with two slide guitars sure provides a standout track.

Another highlight, by the way, is Dom’s own original composition Too Long (I’ve Been Gone), a simple but effective meditation on the travelling musician’s life on the road. Even the selections originally by Gus Cannon (My Money Never Runs Out), Burl Ives (Buckeye Jim) and Dom’s early enthusiasm Mississippi John Hurt (Pay Day) may be less often heard examples, but they all receive superbly spirited treatments from Martin and Dom in true rough-house/juke-joint manner. Track by track, the two musicians take turns on lead-vocal duties, each choosing the most appropriate songs for his speciality idiom. Instrumentally too, each musician really shines (Martin on guitars and five-string banjo, Dom on four-string banjo, guitars, lap-slide, harmonica, bones and quills – the latter bringing a distinctive, piercing authenticity to Henry Thomas’s Bulldoze Blues – the melody of which recalls Canned Heat’s Going Up The Country – and Peg Leg Howell’s Coalman Blues. Likely more familiar material comes in the shape of Little Sadie (learnt from Hedy West’s Topic recording) and Leadbelly’s tale of John Hardy (both taken at a hell of a lick!), and the Memphis Jug Band’s Stealin’ (on which Dom resorts to playing an electric kettle, since he was unable to find a suitable jug or demijohn!). There’s also two delicious oddball entries on the set-list: the music-hall song Champagne Charlie and a British “factory-set” parody of Stephen Foster’s Hard Times found on a Manchester broadsheet of the industrial era.

The concert from which these recordings were sourced must have been a hoot, judging by the smart, exuberant and ultra-enthusiastic quality of the music-making at all times from these two tastefully savvy musicians who wear their virtuosity extremely lightly. The attractive replica retro design for both disc label and overall package gives this release added kudos, as do the sprightly action photos that adorn the booklet and package.

David Kidman