Gimme a Beat

Ultra fan fave Tap Dogs returns with new blokes, new moves and new drummers—the jaw-dropping duo of Warped Tour veteran Caitlin Kalafus and Final Fantasy percussionist Noriko Terada.

Tap Dogs drummers Noriko Terada and Caitlin Kalafus. (Photo from Instagram: noriko_terada_drumsume)

For those of us who were around in the 90s when Tap Dogs made its first tours in the United States, the sight of barrel-chested, be-jean-shorted Aussie beefcakes slapping their Blundstone work boots around a minimalist construction zone was a revelation of the form. Tap Dogs drilled down into the idea of percussion as a prosaic, pedestrian fact of life. The show deconstructed (if you will) tap dance and rebuilt the notion of how beat-making could look and sound. Industrial. Rough. There could be flannel involved—and water and working-class sight gags.

Naturally, the show skyrocketed in popularity. By 1997, four separate tours of the show traveled the world to meet the demand of folks wanting to see the blue-collar dance phenomenon from Down Under.

Photo from Instagram: @tapdogsofficial

Dein Perry, the show’s creator and choreographer (himself a former steelworker from Newcastle, Australia), tweaked the show as times changed, leveling up the moves, upgrading sets and stunts, continually modifying the show to keep it as exciting as those first tours. Today, Tap Dogs is seeing a revival of sorts; it seems as if the next generation of live performance audiences finally got a gander at the show.

No doubt the new incarnation of Tap Dogs is greatly enhanced by the percussive talents of the show’s drummers, who now perform onstage with the Dogs. One they hired fresh off her Warped Tour and stint as Cyndi Lauper’s drummer and the other is best known for her unforgettable work as the percussionist for all the Final Fantasy video games.

The two—Caitlin Kalafus and Noriko Terada—symbolize why Tap Dogs maintains its popularity: they are really cool. And, like the Dogs, neither is reserved in the least when it comes to full-on hammering away with their tools. Their maniacal glee matches the intensity of the rough-and-ready dancing to a T, often pushing the guys to their limits as the women drive a relentless, fun, and mind-blowing force of sound for the show.

Caitlin Kalafus started gigging as a drummer at 12 years old, playing in bars and eventually winning Disney’s Next Big Thing competition with her band Kicking Daisies.

Here’s some grainy footage of an unknown Caitlin crushing the drums at The Orange Ale House on Cinco de Mayo 2007. She’s 13 years old:

And here’s Caitlin twelve years later warming up before the curtain rises on Tap Dogs in Durham, NC, just a few stops from the show’s run in Morsani Hall March 29-31:

Caitlin landed a spot with Mother Feather on the Vans Warped Tour 2017, then gigged with Cyndi Lauper’s band while the 80s icon toured last year. Kalafus has appeared as a guest drummer on Late Night with Seth Myers and as a spokesperson for Zildjian cymbals. She rocks.

Kalafus’s counterpart, the Japanese wunderkind Noriko Terada, joined Tap Dogs in 2012 after a super successful career as the percussionist for Video Game Orchestra, featured in the Final Fantasy series. Terada’s training began at 3 years old with piano, but at 11 she discovered the drums and that was that. Terada—as you will see and hear in the show—can play anything that makes noise. She’s fun to watch, which you’ll discover at the show, too. She also rocks, gigs everywhere and represents Japan for Hits Like a Girl, the international, girls-only drum competition.

Check out the Tap Dogs official Insta account for some killer videos of Caitlin and Noriko rehearsing for the current tour, like this one:

Belting Reigns: An Exclusive Interview with Storm Large

Rocker, chanteuse and raconteur Storm Large (yes, her real name) is a consummate performer—storyteller, writer, high-decibel rock belter, actress and crooner in the woozy, boozy husky-dusky style. After her stint on Rock Star: Supernova catapulted her into America’s living rooms, she became a household name, ultimately re-directing her career trajectory to fronting for Pink Martini, the ultra-hip, multi-lingual contemporary big band everybody loves. Storm formed her own bands The Balls and, most recently, Le Bonheur, both gaining a cult-like fan base. Striking, vulnerable, brutally honest and still eager to grind through the influences of her punk rock youth in her cabaret show, Storm is an experience that matches her name.

We caught up with Storm on the phone during her east coast tour, which stops by The Straz on Thursday, April 4, to chat about the price of reality-TV fame, her career and food.

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Photo from Instagram: @Stormof69

Caught in the Act: You seem to be a thinking woman, an angry woman, a thoughtful woman’s woman. You’ve been open about your background with Crazy Enough, a one-woman-show about reckoning with your mom’s mental illnesses that you turned into a memoir. You were famous on television for a while when you were on Supernova in 2006, and you’ve come to what appears to be, at least in your other interviews, a peaceful place of acceptance. You’re in this different part of your career from The Rocker Storm Large. Do you feel like a famous person or do you feel like a normal person who is very visible?

Storm Large: I don’t really feel like a famous person. I don’t know what a famous person would typically feel like. When I was on television and right when I got off television, I was kind of famous. I did not like that. Right now, I feel really great. I think I don’t feel famous. Not that being famous is necessarily a bad thing. Not to disparage people who are famous. I didn’t enjoy that experience very much. It was frightening, and it was very weird, and awkward, and incredibly demanding. And a weird responsibility to strangers that I’d rather not have.

CITA: Did you feel that you had to “perform” their idea of you?

SL: No, I felt like I had to hide. In terms of dealing with people in the public, when I was feeling like a famous person, I was very, very, very, very, very, very self-aware about be nice, be nice, be nice, don’t give anyone any reason to say something nasty about you. When little kids come up to you and their parents are pushing them towards you for whatever reason, be very gentle. Try not to swear. When people start crying because they’re meeting you, don’t laugh because you’re like, “What the hell are you crying about?” You know, “Why are you crying?” People would offer incredibly, dangerously, personal information about themselves to me, as if they had a very intimate relationship with me. It was really not what I liked. I did not enjoy it. I always try to perform at the top level of whatever I’m doing. When I’m on stage, I always try to, you know, when it’s time to perform. I definitely always do my best, whether someone thinks I’m famous or not.

CITA: You said elsewhere about feeling like you, yourself, are a cabaret storyteller. The term “cabaret” is sometimes confusing for people. When you come down here, most of our audience will probably recognize you from the work that you’ve done with Pink Martini. Will you talk a little bit about what means to you to be a cabaret singer?

SL: It doesn’t mean anything really to me … people call me a cabaret singer because I’m not a rock singer. I’m not an opera singer. I’m not a jazz singer. Cabaret just kind of encompasses any genre that doesn’t really necessarily have a genre. It’s kind of a lazy way to describe someone you don’t want to really get into describing. I’m like a punk rock balladeer storyteller. A punk rock balladeer raconteur. I still sing rock and roll music. I still have that grit and that gravel, but I like to use my voice also in a pretty way, in an intimate way. I love to tell stories. It all kind of comes together in the whole show. The more intimate the space, the more effective the whole show is. Because I can get into people’s faces. It’s really lovely.

CITA: Talk a little bit about the show. What musicians are you going to bring with you? What are the arrangements like? Are we going to hear some punk rock ballads? What’s the deal?

SL: Yeah, you will. You’ll hear some things that are unexpected; things that sound differently than you might expect them to sound. You might hear something very traditional. I’m going to be bringing my band, La Bonheur. They’re a rock ensemble: piano, guitar, bass, drums, and I play ukulele and some percussion, and yeah, it gets loud. It gets bawdy, it gets raucous, but it’s also very smooth and very beautiful. I mean, the band plays so … They’re great, great musicians and good friends of mine. There’s a level of comfort on stage that I really enjoy.

CITA: Well, that’s awesome. What from your punk rock days still lives with you?

SL: I think I just have, you know, some brain damage from the drugs and the bashing myself around, and sleeping in the street, and being a shit-head. Maybe that’s kind of what’s opened up my creativity. Who knows? Maybe it’s cut off a large part of my creativity. I could have totally stunted myself with my bad behavior.

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Photo from Instagram: @Stormof69

SL: One thing I’m pretty sure I have from having lived that way—it lives on in me energetically in terms of the way I see the world—is I understand how a lot of people see things. I have a good strong sense of empathy with people, and sensitivity. I’m like overly sensitive, really. I mean, I talk all tough, and I look really tough, but I’m such a puss. I’m such a squishy, like overly sensitive. I cry over very little thing. I used to hate that about myself, but now I really appreciate that I have heart, having encountered a lot of heartless people. I’m just like, “Wow, I would so much rather burn than be cool ever.”

CITA: When you come to The Straz, will this your first time in Tampa?

SL: I don’t think so.

CITA: Are you looking forward to anything in particular about heading down to Florida that we can share with our readers, some of whom may be being introduced to you for the first time?

SL: Well, I would like to know what your particular food is? Every city has its own kind of take on some kind of food you’re famous for, or drink you’re famous for, or something. Do you have one?

CITA: We do. If you’re a vegetarian, or a vegan, you are way out of luck, though.

SL: I’m not. Is it alligator?

CITA: Not in Tampa. You have to go a little bit further south for that. First, you have to know that Tampa was a huge, huge cultural crossroads back in the 1800s because of the cigar industry. We had Cubans, Germans, Spanish, Italian. It was a hodge-podge, and everybody had their own cigar factories, and they had their own mutual aid societies, but everybody got along. They were making mad, serious, sick bank because cigars were so incredibly popular. The Cubans naturally gave us cafe con leche, which is delicious here. The original Cuban sandwich was invented in Tampa for the cigar workers.

SL: Shut up!

CITA: It’s true.

SL: The original Cubano was invented in Tampa?

CITA: In Tampa, yeah.

SL: Oh my god.

CITA: We had the first Cuban neighborhood. It wasn’t New York, it wasn’t Miami, it was Tampa, honey. We have a piece of land in downtown, in a place called Ybor City—that’s where most of the cigar factories were—that literally belongs to Cuba. It’s Cuban soil.

SL: That’s awesome.

CITA: Yeah, it’s nutso.

SL: Then I know what I’m getting when I get down there.

CITA: Yeah. You’ve got to get a Cuban sandwich and a cafe con leche.

SL: You got it.

CITA: That reminds me that you, before your true destiny called you, were going to be a chef and you ended up in Portland.

SL: Yup.

CITA: Do you have a favorite thing that you make? Is cooking still something that you pursue?

SL: I cook all the time. I’ve been staying with mostly friends and family on this tour and I cook, almost every night. Last night, I made my Greek chicken, which is chicken marinated in Greek yogurt. Lots and lots of garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, fresh parsley. Let that sit for at least an hour. Then you bake that with a lot of salt and pepper.

CITA: You bake it right in the marinade?

SL: I usually take it out of the marinade and just wipe a little bit off. The dairy will brown. It makes it nice, but I kind of like brown skin. It’s usually chicken thighs, chicken legs.

CITA: Yeah.

SL: I make pretty killer salads. Let’s see … tonight I’m going to do beef tenderloin with brown butter garlic.

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Photo from Instagram: @Stormof69

CITA: We want to go on tour with you, except that we’re vegetarian, although you can probably whip up some delicious veggie cuisine, as well.

SL: I make great vegetarian food, but my business partner is vegan; he and his wife make amazing food, like crazy creative, interesting food.

CITA: When you and your crew get here, you’ll have to make sure you eat downtown. Get Cubans, café con leches … you’re in a fantastic performance space here at The Straz, so you’ll have a really great time.

SL: Thank you so much.

Storm Large and her band La Bonheur perform as part of the Straz Center Cabaret series. Hear them in the Jaeb Theater Thursday, April 4.

Everybody Looks Good in a Tux

An Ivy League tradition shed the shackles of the patriarchy, gaining a glorious new talent with Sofia Campoamor.

Yale University’s formerly all-male a cappella group The Whiffenpoofs began in a delightfully Victorian upper-crust circumstance involving a local tavern, a freezing New England evening and a handful of Glee Club members with access to beer.

The story goes that roughly a century ago, some Yale upperclassmen who happened to be in the Varsity Quartet ducked into Mory’s Temple Bar to escape the bitter New Haven cold. Needing very little liquid encouragement, the young men began singing and harmonizing, charming the barkeep and fellow patrons. The young men began meeting each week, gained a following and formed an a cappella group featuring the best singers Yale had to offer. Needing a name, quintet member Denton “Goat” Fowler suggested a mythical dragonfish from a common joke called a Whiffenpoof. Capturing the levity they wanted, “Whiffenpoof” stuck. In 1909, Yale University’s The Whiffenpoofs were born, staying the country’s oldest all-male a cappella group until 2018, when the Whiffs voted to open the group to Yale’s best singers, whoever they may be. (The university’s all-female group, Whim ‘N Rhythm made a similar vote.)

Composer and soprano Sofia Campoamor auditioned, landing a Tenor 1 spot and securing her place in Yale history as the first woman to don a Whiff tuxedo. Although assigned soprano parts, Campoamor’s range plummets to alto and bass when necessary or vaults to operatic head voice for higher soprano notes. In an article for Yale News, her singing peer Aissa Guidno quipped that Campoamor’s exceptional range “doesn’t really exist.”

Campoamor auditioned for The Whiffenpoofs with Sara Bareilles’s “Manhattan,” a popular tune that displays both a vocal and emotional range for a skilled singer who can capture very nuanced phrasing, pulling something a little extra out of the end notes. Campoamor impressed the judges, and now she joins the top tier of Yale singers as The Whiffs embark on their 2019 tour.

Whiffs go on national tour after their junior years, taking a leave of absence from their studies. They return to Yale at the end of the tour to start their senior years. So, each year, a new class of Whiffenpoofs charm the nation with their tradition of robust singing and wacky harmonizing. The Whiff class of 2019 arrives at The Straz Wed., March 27, to perform in Ferguson Hall.

While Whiffs ’19 may be the first co-ed class, efforts were made 30 years ago to lift the gender restriction as members realized they were withholding their resources and privileges from qualified singers. In 1987, Whiffenpoof David Code lobbied to open the group to women, a position that polarized the campus and sparked a debate that grew, as Code reported in The New York Times, “ugly and personal.” Yale itself went co-ed in 1968, the year Code cites as being the year The Whiffs should have also started auditioning qualified female singers. “Finally … meritocracy is here,” he told The Times. “I’m thrilled. I’m delighted.”

Sofia’s inclusion doesn’t strike the current make-up of Whiffs as political. “If people judge Sofia on her quality as a singer, they would reach the same conclusions that we have,” says current Whiffenpoof musical director Kenyon Duncan. “This class of Whiffenpoofs is exceptionally talented.”

Hear for yourself:

Get your tickets now before Poof! they’re gone.

Thrilling new Jaeb show asks: What would you do if you only had a Hundred Days with the love of your life?

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Let’s say one morning you hustle into your favorite coffee shop, order your regular, and as you’re dawdling by the pick-up counter, you happen to make eye contact with someone at the high-top in the corner who happened to look up the same time you did. An exchange occurs in that moment: you capture each other, an undeniable knowing that you are supposed to be together passes between you. You brave the unknown; you travel the 8,000 miles across the coffee shop to speak. A conversation leads to a date that leads to a long weekend where you wake up Tuesday to discover yourself in love.

You become that skipping, smiling, whistling, happy happy joy joy supernova of a besotted lump experiencing what it feels like to be the most favored in the universe. Nothing could throw a hitch in your skip.

But news arrives you didn’t expect – a diagnosis, a deployment, something that sets your time together against the clock. You found the love of your life, yes. But, you’ll only have one hundred days with that person.

Three and a half months.

How would you choose to live each and every one of those days? So goes the premise of Abigail and Shaun Bengson’s autobiographical punk-folk-indie-rock-electronica blues show, Hundred Days, which runs in the Jaeb Theater Jan. 15 – March 24.

Hundred Days New York Theatre Workshop

The show, which reveals their love-at-first-sight story and the crazy events that followed, does so through a rock concert structure, almost like a reverse musical.

Hundred Days is a concert that tells a story – a very personal, very extraordinary, very funny story about the make-or-break need to become vulnerable if you want to make love stay.

Professional singer-songwriters, the Bengsons wrote all the songs for show, pulling from their favorite theatrical forms to get Hundred Days exactly where they wanted it to be: leaving audiences wishing the show itself lasted at least as long. The show has been a huge hit in New York and San Diego, where it ran before the Bengsons packed up their guitars and drums and headed to Tampa.

Our INSIDE magazine caught up with Abigail and Shaun during their opening weekend at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego to talk about Hundred Days, family life and their upcoming Florida debut at The Straz.

 

INSIDE MAGAZINE: Tell us a little bit about this show. It’s a departure from the traditional musicals we normally have at The Straz and it’s not a jukebox musical or a concert. What is it?

ABIGAIL AND SHAUN: It’s true that Hundred Days is not your standard musical theater fare. We started out as musicians and moved into the world of writing for theater because of our passion for telling stories and the ability theater has to bring people together for big moments of shared emotional catharsis. So, our music pulls from a wide variety of genres that inspire us, like folk, punk, indie rock, blues and electronica. We also pull from a lot of different theatrical styles when it comes to building the structure and form for the stories we want to tell, including folklore storytelling, documentary, concert and stand-up comedy. Our core collaborators Sarah Gancher, Anne Kauffman and Sonya Tayeh have also been hugely instrumental in creating this new, music-theater hybrid. They helped us push the form and the sound as well as weaving in more traditional theatricality throughout our work. And really, the truth is, even with all of the ways in which we are trying to break the mold, at its core, Hundred Days is a story told through music just like any other piece of musical theater! It’s all in the service of building an emotionally compelling story that we hope will resonate with our audiences.

IM: How “true“ is the “based on a true story” part of Hundred Days?

A&S: It is embarrassingly true! We really did have our first date, then three weeks later, we were hitched. Something about the moment of our falling for each other shattered any illusions of youthful invulnerability we had, made us realize the pain of placing so much of our hearts into such a fragile vessel. Some details and events are changed in the show in order to fit it all into 90 minutes, but any change that we made was designed so that the show would better convey what it felt like to go through that time – the joys and the terrors that we felt. There is a scene in the show that is an actual transcription of a conversation we had. It’s in there in all its glory and its humiliation.

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Photo from Instagram: @hundreddaysny

IM: You all spend a lot of time together. What’s your secret to staying a happy, healthy and productive family?

A&S: Yes, we do spend a whole lot of time together. We’ve actually really worked for many years to be able to build a life in which we could be together as much as we can possibly be. It is truly the blessing and the joy of life that we get to. This is the exact opposite of how we’ve handled pretty much every other relationship in our lives. We’re both huge introverts and usually need a great deal of personal space. But, it’s just not like that with each other. There is certainly a lot that we needed to figure out in terms of combining and balancing family and work and it’s a daily practice to try and get it right. Finding that balance has become even more true since the birth of our son two years ago. We really thought we were already operating at full capacity, but, man, we can’t believe how many plates we have to spin at once trying to keep the art going and raise our boy in a way we feel good about. If there is any secret at all, it’s being as open and honest with each other as we can, trying always to talk things through, really working to try and hear and support each other. That can be easier said than done, but it really does come down to that for us.

IM: Share some of your musical influences and mentors … how do you create the Bengson “sound“ in this show?

A&S: We grew up listening to all sorts of music and we hope that it comes through when you listen to our tunes. We’ve been writing this show for more than a decade, and you can hear a lot of the different styles of music that we’ve been writing and listening to from over that time. The core of our music is really all about folk, both American folk music as well as from places all over. We grew up listening to a lot of ‘60’s folkies like Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Odetta and Ewan MacColl. There’s a lot of music being made right now that inspires us a lot too that draws on that folk tradition – Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, Sharon Van Etten. We also really love it when that folk sound meets punk music (The Pogues, Gogol Bordello, Flogging Molly). We are also huge fans of big vocalists and singers from Motown, soul, and Latin music like Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Caetano Veloso. The newest elements that we have loved playing with is using big heavy electronic beats and playing with interesting electronic sounds and textures like The Flaming Lips, Björk, Kanye, James Blake. Everyone onstage in Hundred Days plays an instrument and sings, so this blend of acoustic and electronic elements with a big choral sound is what this show is about for us.

IM: Hundred Days is the kind of show that really touches the heart. Do you often have audience members sharing stories with you? Would you mind sharing one or two touching moments you’ve had with fans?

A&S: We have heard a lot of sweet stories from people! Our favorite thing is getting to hear stories from both the brand-new young couples in the house as well as from couples who have been together 50-60 years. There was one older couple in their 80s who were sitting beside our associate director, Caitlin Sullivan, and she couldn’t honestly tell what they were thinking about the show. But, as they were leaving, she heard the woman say, “That is exactly what it felt like to be young and in love. That is just what I remember.” That really meant a lot to us.

IM: What do you hope audiences will get out of this show?

A&S: In many ways, these are frightening and confusing times we are living through. We find that it’s easy to get beaten down, to numb yourself out, to give up. This show is about the power of fear and the ease with which it can prevent us from living. This show is our way of continuing to challenge ourselves to love and to live and to not give in even when the stakes feel insurmountable. And also – we hope everyone will enjoy the awesome music and hilarious jokes.

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In the studio recording the cast album. Photo from Instagram: @hundreddaysny.

A Note to Fans from Abigail and Shaun:
If anyone is curious to hear the music before the show, we just released the official cast album. You can find it on iTunes, Spotify, wherever you go for your music. We worked hard on it, and we are proud to get it out there and share it with folks. We are so honored to get to be coming to Tampa, to be welcomed into this theater and this community. We are looking forward to meeting all of you!

Next Big Thing: Evan Tyrone Martin

The young Chicago-based singer-actor appears in the Jaeb Theater for his acclaimed holiday concert—and guess what? His mom lives in Tampa and will be at every show. If you want to be there, you better get tickets soon because they’re hotter than chestnuts in an open fire right now.

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The Straz Center often has artists at the cusp of breaking out in their careers, like the time we hosted Jon Batiste and Stay Human (who?) only months before they landed their gig as Stephen Colbert’s house band (oh, them!). We have another of those acts lined up for a Christmas show as part of our cabaret series—Evan Tyrone Martin, whose show An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas strikes a perfect holiday harmony of golden-age nostalgia and youthful earnestness.

We caught up with Evan on the phone just a few days before the show started its holiday tour, which lands in the Jaeb this Thursday for five performances through the weekend.

The show originated last year, playing to packed audiences in St. Louis. The success of the show encouraged the producers to put Evan on the road the subsequent holiday season, and here we are.

“This is the first opportunity that I’ve had to tour with something that is my own, that actually features me,” says Evan, whose extensive performance career in Chicago included everyone from Jesus to King Triton. “Producers Michael and Angela Ingersoll had been looking for a new kind of show for Artists Lounge Live. Because they do so many iconic singers, they had been thinking about Nat King Cole for a little while. And they were kind of nervous about trying to find someone who could take on that particular catalog. It’s a very specific voice. It’s one that everybody holds near and dear. If you meet someone, they know about Nat King Cole and are probably a fan. If you hear a bad version of ‘The Christmas Song’ … it kind of angers you, you know?”

Evan, however, had an ace up his sleeve about landing the gig even though he himself didn’t know he was being considered to take on Nat King Cole for Artists Lounge Live. “They [the Ingersolls] called me and said, “We heard that you sound a little like Nat King Cole. Are you familiar with his catalog?” And I just about fell out of my chair because I grew up listening to Nat King Cole. He was one of my grandmother’s favorite artists.” Evan, who’d come to the Ingersoll’s attention by way of a music director who worked with him and the Ingersolls for separate projects, submitted a clip of “Smile” and was on contract by the end of the evening.

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Evan performing in HAIR. (Photo: Brett A. Beiner)

Although—as you’ll see at the show—Evan not only sounds like Nat King Cole, he also looks like Nat King Cole. An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas is not about Evan impersonating the great singer, however. The show is Evan taking us through a musical memoir of sorts, balancing Cole’s songs with his own family stories. “My goal was to hearken back to him as much as possible in the way that I present his music, the way that I sound, the way that I move, so that people felt as though they were at one of his concerts,” Evan says. “Throughout the concert, they could not only get to know a little bit more about him through me talking about his life, but they could get to know a little bit more about me because our trajectories, as far as music and performance, are kind of similar. We kind of had similar upbringings.”

Evan’s grandmother passed away while he was in high school, so she never got to see her grandson step into the legacy of her favorite singer. For Evan, though, performing the songs of someone so important to the greater Martin family helps him stay connected to his grandmother and others. “[Performing this show] brings me a little bit of joy to be able to hearken back. Both of my grandmothers taught me so much about music and all of it. And, my dad, who I actually recently lost this year,” he says “I’m able to hearken back and pay tribute to all of those people who taught me so much about performance. And they were non-professional performers, for the most part. But, I’m able to tie them into the show that would have meant so much to all of us and weave them into the fabric of the show. It means so much to me. I get to sing a song to and for my grandmother every time we do the show.”

“There’s something that changes in a singer’s voice and presence when there’s such an emotional connection to the music,” Evan says. “You can love a song, but when you feel as though you are literally connected to a song, that takes it to an entire different level in your performance and in the way that people feel it. I think that the fact that I can feel my family with me on stage and can dedicate certain songs to them specifically, I think that makes the connection just that much deeper and richer for both myself and the audience.”

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Evan’s mother, herself a singer and Tampanian, plans to be at each of the five shows. “She’s putting together a cabaret show, knee-deep working on it now. She joined a couple bands in Tampa but moved to Alabama to take care of some family. [She’s back in Tampa now] so she really does just want to get back into seeing what’s possible. I’m excited to have her in the audience and maybe, maybe I can convince her to get up on stage one of those times,” he laughs.

To see An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas starring Evan Tyrone Martin (and maybe his mom), get your tickets for any seats still available this weekend.

 

 

The American Songster Speaks Out

Dom Flemons founded groundbreaking black string band Carolina Chocolate Drops and recently recorded a seminal music work, Black Cowboys, for Smithsonian Folkways. He plays Club Jaeb Nov. 19 and spoke with us about his music and upcoming show at The Straz in this exclusive interview.

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Caught in the Act: We have such a huge respect for what you have dedicated your career to do.

Dom: Oh, thank you so much! It’s been a very interesting and wonderful journey into music, as well as history and culture. It’s been pretty amazing. I’ve also gotten to travel to quite a few wonderful destinations in my time of doing music. Quite a transition from busking on the streets of Phoenix.

CITA: You represented the United States at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Malaysia recently.

Dom: Yeah. There were 47 different countries representing. I was the first artist they’d ever had that was representing American historical music. That was a real honor and a real treat. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to do from the beginning, is to be able to showcase a lot of different angles of American culture.

CITA: For any of our readers who may be hearing about you for the first time, can you describe what it is you do with American historical music?

Dom: Sure. That all goes back to my first years performing music. As I started getting into listening to records, first it was CD’s, then I got into LPs and cassettes a little bit growing up. Once I got into LPs, I really started to notice some amazing music. That got me into early rock and roll like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, stuff like that. And Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Hank Williams, and that was where I started. From there it turned into folk music, through Bob Dylan, of course. I got into the sixties’ folk revival … Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, and Lightnin Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Boggs, Doc Watson, a whole bunch of different people. So that’s where I started out. Just listening to music and wanting to learn those styles.

After that, I went to an event called the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. I started studying the African and African American Banjo. So that was when I started the group Carolina Chocolate Drops. I moved from Phoenix over to North Carolina, and I lived in Chapel Hill for a little while and Hillsboro for a little bit, as well. I got connected with a fellow named Tim Duffy, who did a lot of photos in the most recent project … old tintype photography. Tim runs a nonprofit called Music Maker Relief Foundation and I got to meet some amazing older blues singers that were obscure singers, even in of themselves. That was something that gave me a different perspective on music. I was able to interpret that music is listened art. Then I was able to really incorporate vernacular southern music in the style, the lifestyle into my performances.

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Tim Duffy’s tintypes of southern blues musicians were on exhibit at Florida Museum of Photographic Arts in 2018.

So I’ve been able to find a good hodge-podge of different things that have interested me in music and really crafting it in the true traditional style, which is knowing a bunch of different cultural cues that music can tell you. And be able to embed cultural cues within my actual performances, so people react and respond and get to understand the cultures I’m representing. That’s a little bit heady on the subject, but when you hear me play, I’m just playing a song and trying to entertain you with it.

That’s kind of where I started with all of it. Of course, Carolina Chocolate Drops became very popular so we were able to tour all over the world and be able to be a performing arm for that type of music, which had been under represented in a lot of folklore.

CITA: Could you give me a couple examples of what you mean by “cultural cues” in music?

Dom: I put it this way, the great folklorist Alan Lomax, he went out and recorded people for the Library of Congress in the thirties with his father. In his later career, to serve as an academic for folklore music, he created a system called cantometrics, and another system called choreometrics. The idea of choreometrics was that, when you see a traditional culture do a dance, the movement represents everything about that particular culture that’s significant. So say, for example, when you’re working in the field you might be cutting grass with a gigantic blade and you have a certain movement that you do all day long, working. The folk music that you do later that night will incorporate the same movements because you’ve been doing it all day. So, you automatically have the muscle memory. Say you have a gigantic stringed instrument that requires big waving arm motions that you’ve been doing all day at work—that’s what you do at play, as well.

That’s the idea that Alan Lomax had that I’ve always applied that to my music. Thinking about the movements, the dance, the message that comes across in body language and in material. I try to think of it almost like character acting. Where you have actors that, they don’t play themselves in every movie, they play whoever the character they’re playing is. It’s authentic. It looks and feels like the character you’re actually listening to. It’s almost like magic in a way.

CITA: Right.

Dom: It’s all music and fun in the end though.

CITA: What do you, personally, you as a human being, get out of living and breathing these antiquated musical traditions?

Dom: For me, having studied history, I find that American history, good and bad, is all very interesting. Some of it is very positive. Many parts of it is very negative. But when it comes to the music [of America], the music is something that incorporates something that is universal—music—and applies it to cultural experiences or cultural nuances that reflect the times in which the music was made. At first, I didn’t feel like I had many stories to tell myself, so I told other people’s stories. Over time, I’ve collected my own stories along the way, but the idea of telling a story along with a song, that’s something that I feel is inseparable in certain ways, especially in live performance. When you’re listening to a record, you need just a great recording of the singular song without the conversation, but when it comes to understanding music, people want both. They want the story and the song.

I feel like, especially as music becomes more modern, people are actually looking for those cues, but it’s just with different types of music. A lot of the reality stars, they sell their music by showing you they’re on t.v., and then you buy the music. Folk music works the same way, except that you have John Henry, who’s an archetype for an African American man who’s a railroad worker, his job is about to be replaced by the steam engine, so he challenges the steam engine and he wins. But then he dies tragically, afterward. That’s a pretty modern story if you want to make it that. It’s about man and machine, it’s about man, and then in versions of the song, it’s about his wife, Polly Ann, coming in and stepping in after he dies as a steel driver. It’s about men and women. It’s very multi faceted. It’s as good as anything we have…Shakespeare, Homer’s Epic Ballads, or anything like that. But it comes from the people. It’s the people’s voice and the people’s language. I enjoy that for the literature in of itself, but then when you can mix together different messages…people do it in Hip Hop all the time. They yell out, “Hey, everybody from Compton!” It’s a cultural cue. They say Compton a certain way, or they might say Hotlanta instead of Atlanta, that’s a cultural cue that people from around there know and so they respond to that.

It’s the same thing with folk music. That’s how all those songs have endured so long. There’s a lot of depth within them. That’s what draws me in. I’m constantly finding new stories. That’s why I like it.

CITA: Will you talk to us a little about Black Cowboys? That’s your latest album, right? When you come to the Straz, you’ll be highlighting songs from that work?

Dom: Absolutely. With Black Cowboys, it was kind of a step back to Arizona, where I’m from. I stumbled across this gift shop in the Petrified Forest in New Mexico, and I found a book called The Negro Cowboys by Phillip Durham. It talked about how one in four cowboys who settled the west were African American cowboys.

Having not seen a lot of that in movies and stuff like that, because my dad was really deep into cowboy movies, he’s from Flagstaff, Arizona, which is a western town. My grandfather was a logger and a preacher; he had moved over from east Texas, and my grandmother had moved over from Little Rock, Arkansas. I had never necessarily talked to them about cowboys, but as I started reading the stories of these cowboys in history books, I just started seeing my grandparents and their story within this bigger story. It was double faceted for me, where I was able to learn more about myself and the culture that I grew up in, in addition to being able to have the first comprehensive overview of the idea of African Americans in the west: black cowboys singing black country music, as well as string band music put in the blues and the context of cowboy music as well and doing that within a full package.

So I wanted to do a new record, and this idea of black cowboys kept dogging me. I saw that there wasn’t a modern album that had this. Of course, I’ve always been a big fan of Marty Robbins, who wrote “El Paso.” His great album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, is an epic classic. I was trying to figure out, how can I get the epicness of Marty Robbins, but not really try to do full on orchestra style like Marty Robbins was doing. I’ve been a big fan of cowboy music even though I never necessarily played it. I’ve always loved cowboy music. Grew up with it. Started in coffee houses where there were cowboy singers, pretty much all my life, so in a way it was a reclaiming of many things for me.

CITA: Would you differentiate between cowboy music and country music?

Dom: Cowboy music is funny in that way. The best definition I got from one of the legendary singers, Dylan Edwards, was that cowboy songs are just any song that a cowboy sings. Which is what makes it problematic, because in terms of material, it’s really all over the place. Cowboy music is the same type of way [as jazz], where it’s a style, but there are a couple different generations. Usually it’s themed around the lives of cowboys. It’s around ranching, shooting, riding horses, funny times. Other times, they reach out to the Gold Rush Era, other times they reach out to the Modern Era with people like Gene Autry, it’s kind of the next step of cowboy singing. So there’s a style of cowboy singing, the singing cowboy style, which is like Gene Autry, Tom Nicks, Tex Ritter, people like that.

So I break down all those different styles in this record and show off the African American cowboys and how they were interspersed within that. There was a guy, Herb Jeffries, he worked with Billy Epstein and Duke Ellington, and he made several black cowboy films in the style of Gene Autry so I reference him. Bill Pickett, who is the very first black cowboy on film, and he was a champion rodeo rider. He created a sport called bulldogging, which is where you reach over and headlock a bull and knock it to the ground. He invented that. Buffalo Soldiers, they were African American soldiers, and they were the first ones to go out west during the Civil War years and afterward, there’s a whole other culture around that.

Anyway, I could go on and on about the themes. It took me about six months to get the album recorded, but it took me about a year and a half to write it out because there was so much amazing history. I tried to make it universal so people could get into the idea, read about the subject, then research deeper. The album came out of Smithsonian Folkways, which is a wonderful independent label. Also, it’s a part of the African American Legacy recordings series, which is in conjunction with the National Museum of the African American History and Culture, D.C. I knew that coming into it, that this Legacy series existed, and I’m one of the first contemporary artists on there so I wanted to make sure and do it up real big, in terms of, being on this particular series because now it’s in the gift shop at the museum. So, when people go in there, when they look for Black Cowboys, my album is there. Which is really a righteous deed, you know?

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Buffalo Bill, ca.1875

CITA: It is fascinating, thinking historically, where these cultural cross roads gave birth to new art forms. And how history gets shaped. We heard an interview on NPR with a writer who documented how Buffalo Bill is almost single-handedly responsible for creating the cowboy myth that we think about when we think about what wild west cowboys were. But at the time of Buffalo Bill, the cowboys were mostly African Americans and Mexicans.

Dom: Yeah, absolutely. That’s part of the story there. It’s a very, very deep web of history. I touch upon Buffalo Bill a little bit, as well, because his wild west show links into the early history of circus and side shows. It goes back into this world of display art for people that want to see it. In the United States, display art became circus shows, minstrel shows, all that stuff comes out this really big, big top, sort of homegrown Americana that’s people from small towns figuring out how to make it happen. Buffalo Bill, being a guy who had such credentials as a western icon and individual, he just worked the newspapers and made the show the biggest thing it could be. It’s people side stepping the big banks and the railroads. It breaks into this whole bigger social world in which the West developed.

CITA: Right. So you’re going to have to do Black Cowboys Volume One, Volume Two, Volume Three …

Dom: That’s that hope. I’d love to do a trilogy, ultimately. I just don’t know how long that would take to get that all together. In terms of material, I barely scratched the surface, as well. You can get into all sorts of interesting history with all this stuff. There was so much material to work with, I was just so glad that I was able to catch the ones I did.

CITA: You ended up writing about Bass Reeves.

Dom: Yep. I wrote about Bass Reeves. He’s the Lone Ranger. I read about him in a western book. It was Legends of the West, and he happened to be mentioned in there. I thought he just had a fascinating story, so I went and looked him up. A fellow named Archie Burton has written a book on Bass Reeves, called Black Gun Silver Star, and I just was blown away by this guy’s story. To know that the evidence around Bass Reeves’ shows that he’s the basis for The Lone Ranger, they haven’t confirmed it 100%, but it’s a really comparable story. Just to have that idea out there, it really just, again, serves the purpose of diversifying what a cowboy can be. It’s not so much that this is one narrative better than this narrative, but to diversify so people see that there’s a choice. When you choose the different parts of western culture, you find that western culture has been diverse. For better or worse, it’s been diverse for quite a long time.

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Bass Reeves was the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi. He is said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed 14 outlaws.

Nat Love, another one of the famous cowboys, he was one of the few to write his own autobiography. He happened to write about his experiences becoming a Pullman Porter, and I found that several of the cowboys I read about had become porters at one point or another because I kept coming across the question of what happened to the black cowboys? It almost seemed like they disappeared from history very quickly, but to add in the element of them hustling work on the railroad after the fences in the west has been factioned off to different people, it becomes very logical story that leads into the modern Civil Rights Movement with the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. A. Phillip Randolph organized the first all-black employment union, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Cars, for Pullman Porters. Over several decades, you have these guys in such prestigious positions because they’re working with the upper-class clientele. History really shows a lot of the social uplift that came through their involvement in the western culture. But a lot of the porters came from being cowboys, which was why a subtitle for the Black Cowboys record was Songs from the Trails to the Rails.

CITA: When you come to see us, you will be talking about the stories and the process and performing songs from Black Cowboys? Are you traveling with the band right now or do we get you all to ourselves?

Dom: It will just be me solo. I’ll perform and then I might read maybe one or two passages from the liner notes of poignant quotes I’ve found, but then it’s going to be featuring the Black Cowboys songs right in the middle. Of course, I’ll have some great old-time music in there. I got number five on the Bluegrass charts with Black Cowboys, so I’m also playing some Bluegrass stuff in there, some country blues.

CITA: Fantastic! So you and the banjo are going to be doing it up, we hope.

Dom: Oh yeah. It’s going to be a nice time. I picked up some good stuff. I got a gourd banjo, as well, which is a banjo made from a gourd. That references early American banjos. Beautiful sound, has a nice low tone to it, so I’ll be bringing that, as well.

CITA: Is this a four-string gourd banjo?

Dom: This one is a five string, but I have my four-string gearing like I always have. I’m going to pick some of the good, fast old-time numbers, do a couple of slow ones, and it’ll be a great time. I’ve also been featuring some great harmonica solos recently and people have been really enjoying that.

 

CITA: You are also quite accomplished at the quills and the rhythm bones. Will they be making an appearance, and can you tell us a little about what these instruments are and how you play them?

Dom: Oh, sure thing! I’ll start with the quills. The quills are like a pan pipe. It’s a bunch of cane reeds that are vertical so they’re pointing up and down. They’re from longer from the left to shorter to the right. I blow over them, similar to like you would blow over a bottle top, so they’re all in a line of nine different notes in a pentatonic scale, and I play string band music with that. The rhythm bones are two cow rib bones that I’m holding between my fingers, my pointer, middle and ring fingers. Then I turn my wrist and they sound like castanets. If you’ve ever seen a flamenco dancer, they sound like castanets. So, I start whipping some rhythm on those and it’s a good time.

CITA: Well, Dom, what a delight you are. We are so excited that you’re coming to the Straz Center. We’re ready for you to be here and hear your stories and music and have a good time with you.

Dom: Wonderful. I can’t wait to be back over at The Straz. It’s been several years. I think the last time I was there was with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I can’t wait to make it back over there. It’s going to be a real wonderful time.

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Dom Flemons performs in the Jaeb Theater Monday, Nov. 19. To hear part of this interview, tune into Act2, the Straz Center official podcast, on Soundcloud.

Tramps Like Us

Springsteen’s musical progeny teem within the alt-rock and Americana scenes, including our Club Jaeb series.

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Let’s talk about Bruce.

Or, as millions (probably billions) of fans know him: BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE.

Why we haven’t seen a generation of children named Springsteen remains a mystery given the man’s four decades of generating an extreme fanbase with his theatrical, high-energy concerts and workingman’s albums that swing from pop to rock to folk to a certain Jersey Shore spiritualism. Then he became a New York Times bestselling author with his memoir in 2016 followed by his stint last year as a Broadway superstar during his sold-out one-man show/concert. Ever since 1975 when he decided to pump a little iron and release arguably the greatest blue collar American anthem ever penned with “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen has burned across the night sky of American pop culture like a riotous, infinite comet.

We have it on good word from a friend of a friend who happens to live in the Springsteens’ neck of the woods in Jersey and ends up at the same pub from time to time that the man always travels with half-written songs in his pockets. He never stops.

It’s no wonder, then, that in so many bios of young singer-songwriters something like “harkens to a Nebraska-era Springsteen” appears as a description of their authenticity, sound and depth. Although it seems inconceivable that anyone would be able to possess Bob Dylan’s power of musical influence on the singer-songwriter scene, Bruce does.

Unlike Dylan, however, Bruce is a ham. His live shows bear all the markings of theatrical contrivance—the impossibly long knee-slides, the roving spotlights, the mike-stand backbends, the grand gesticulations and well-timed shifts in voice. Bruce, like any great playwright, director or actor, snatches up the audience and threads them through an emotional wringer, all the while making sure they enjoy the experience.

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Our beloved program manager Joel Lisi, who happens to be a big Springsteen fan, books our Club Jaeb singer-songwriter season. Joel’s a musician, too, and he knows the real deal when he hears it, which is why so many cool people end up on the Club Jaeb series. Inevitably, most of these cool folks cite Springsteen as a major influence.

So, we asked Joel why he thinks Bruce flexes such impressive musical power.

“The Boss obviously resides in the ‘once in a lifetime’ box,” Joel says. “What I mean specifically here is that I can’t think of another artist who has what I’ll call the Bruce duality. Or, ‘Bru-ality’ if you will. (Trademarked, don’t even.)”

Bruality?

“On one side, he’s the humble, introspective and pensive artist. As authentic and prolific as a Dylan, [Leonard] Cohen, etc. and as down-home-blue-collar-every-man-Americana as you can get,” Joel explains. “On the other side, he’s a pure entertainer. Look at some vintage E-Street Band footage. The three-to-four-hour concerts. Huge. Watch the choreography (for lack of a better word). The showmanship. He’s the likely product if Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley stepped into that machine from The Fly. But through this duality, he’s somehow been able to maintain his artistic integrity like none other. It really doesn’t make any sense.”

 

But what does that have to do with younger singer-songwriters?

“Well, The Boss is American. And, in an effort to make a point here, by that I mean ‘Merican. That mattered and still does. Why should it matter? Despite his iconic ‘Mericanism—in fact, maybe because of it—he never shied away from writing about harsh truths, inequities and painful realities this circus of a country seems destined to churn out. He embraced, struggled, pondered and screamed at them. Still does. That’s the heartbeat of the republic of American music,” Joel says. “So, if I’m a young songwriter and I get hip to the legacy of a guy like Bruce selling out stadiums, TRULY rocking the world in all its glory, feeling that power and energy… then listen to Bruce practically whisper profundities off an album like Nebraska? You know, art in many ways is about upholding the sound of truth. Like attracts like. Truth responds to truth. Bruce embodies a spirit that others catch, make their own, pass on. When younger people who want to write songs about real things hear what Bruce does, it’s almost impossible not to be profoundly affected either in musicality or the stories they tell in song.”

Our next Club Jaeb performer, Griffin House, launched into the big time because of Patti Scialfa, who happens to be married to Bruce, after she hand-picked him to be her opening act. House spent a few years in the Scialfa-Springsteen sphere of influence, eventually returning to Asbury Park to record a deeply personal album, So On and So Forth. House is one of the many magical sparks to fall from the Great Comet Streak himself, which you’d no doubt hear in his songs from So On and So Forth (and House’s other records) even if we hadn’t told you.

“He’s called The Boss,” Joel says. “What else is he gonna do but affect everybody?”