When Dom Flemons and JD Wilkes joined the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – a trio – at the end of a three-plus-hour night of music in Columbus, the resulting jam session was a smoker as Flemons added stage presence and bones and Wilkes blew a harp that wafted right out of the 1930s over the Damn Band’s combo of grimy guitar, washboard and drums.
The 30-minute show-capper consolidated the music that influenced all three acts, comprising of early-20th-century numbers like “Old Jim Canaan,” sung by Flemons, and “Rounding’ up Girls All Day,” with Peyton on lead vocals, as each frontman took solos on his respective instrument. It was a raucous, celebratory conclusion to the Nov. 23 show that flowed like a bell curve from Wilkes’ opening set to Flemons’ mid-show showcase and Peyton’s headlining slot as original material was co-mingled with songs by Elizabeth Cotten, Sonny Boy Williamson II, the Carter Family, Charley Patton and others.
It was almost perfectly paced as Wilkes took the stage just after 8 p.m. for a 30-minute set, followed 10 minutes later by Flemons’ three-quarters-of-an-hour performance. In nothing flat, Peyton and company took the stage for their hourlong concert, which melted into the aforementioned conglomeration. And although the sold-out Woodlands Tavern, judging by T-shirts in the crowd, was full of Peyton partisans, it was Flemons who received the loudest ovations.
Touring behind his Black Cowboys LP, the bespectacled Flemons looked as if he’d just walked off the ranch with a hat, suspenders holding up his blue work pants and a pocket watch on a gold chain. The former Carolina Chocolate Drop, known as “the American Songster,” was the consummate entertainer and played in the style of De Ole Folks at Home-era Taj Mahal.
Playing banjo, guitar, quills, bones and harmonica and singing “Black Woman Blues” a cappella in a voice that drifted effortlessly from baritone to falsetto, Flemons held the full house in a pin-drop spell until they erupted between numbers. Whether he was soloing on harmonica on “Ol’ Cindy Gal,” doing exaggerated Elvis-with-guitar moves on “Hot Chicken” or spinning his harmonica 360 degrees in the middle of “There’s a Brown-skinned Girl Down the Road Somewhere,” Flemons silenced the loud bar with his stage presence and sheer talent.
His instrumental medley of “Freight Train,” “Railroad Bill” and “Cannonball” revealed a deft acoustic-guitar picker who just happened to excel at myriad other instruments; his 45-minute set stole the show.
Wilkes opened with harmonica instrumentals played through a bullet mic that made him sound more like an old 78 than a live performer. His cigar-box banjo was similarly distorted and dirt-caked; only his synthesized foot percussion – which occasionally overwhelmed the real music he made – gave away the year as he sang an original murder ballad, “Blood on the Old Bluegrass.” “Dump Road Yodel” was preceded by a story that could be described as a spoken-word version of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” which made it sound untrue and reminded concertgoers Thanksgiving is right around the corner.
Accompanied by wife, “Breezy” Peyton, on washboard and Max Senteney on a drum kit outfitted with a five-gallon bucket, Peyton brings serious musicianship with a playful stage presence akin to Southern Culture on the Skids, but cheesier and not as funny. Fingerpicking and playing slide on resonator, National and three-string cigar-box guitars, Peyton led the tiny Big Damn Band through mediocre originals such as “Pot Roast and Kisses,” “Clap Your Hands” and “You Can’t Steal My Shine.”
“Poor Until Payday,” a grinding blues-rocker, was far and away the band’s best self-penned track and Peyton’s solo cover of “Banty Rooster” made clear the band’s weakness stems more from material and presentation – the planned moves, incessant between-song banter and weird facial expressions quickly grew stale – than talent. If the Big Damn Band played a Big Damn Set of pre-1950s material, it might be unstoppable.