Friday night at the Rose Bowl Tavern in Urbana was the place to be for the C-U Folk and Roots Festival. The space was quick to fill up after I grabbed my seat. The first act was a fantastic band called The Gaslight Squares, a St. Louis-based traditional jazz band who played a fantastic mix of jazz, blues and ragtime.

The band was lead by the lead trumpeter, TJ Muller. In between their numbers he gave the history and background on almost all of the songs the group played throughout the night. Speaking and playing, he was a pleasure to listen to. 

The band members played such a wide range of instruments and their sound would switch-up depending on what type of genre they were playing. From the happy, plucky sounds of a banjo and clarinet playing together, to the gut-strung upright bass and piano duet they performed towards the end of their show. 

Following the Gaslight Squares was the headliner of the festival, Dom Flemons. Flemons has been with the festival in 2014 and was thrilled to be back in Urbana. He is a Grammy Award winner and two time Emmy nominee.

The audience was enraptured with Flemons as he went from banjo to harmonica to panpipes to the rhythm bones (a stick like instrument you strike on your body). 

It was the most unique combination of instruments I have ever seen a person play and the combination of banjo/panpipes and harmonica/bones for two different songs was amazing. 

Dom’s voice was smooth, velvety and has a way of drawing you in. During the two slower, quieter songs Dom played, the crowd was practically silent even though the Rose Bowl was packed. “Goodbye Old Paint” was especially beautiful with the acoustic guitar accompanying him it almost became a second voice in harmony with his singing. 

On “Black Woman” (which you can hear on his 2018 release, Black Cowboys), he showed off his vocal talents by singing a capella. The song itself had a yodeling vibe with his voice jumping from low baritone sound to high tenor. On “Old Corn Likker”, a square dance song where the singer calls out the movements to the dancers, Flemons pulled out a gourd banjo which had a muffled, warm, and percussive sound that added a fun timbre to the song.

His harmonica playing was particularly impressive, bending the notes so clear and so precise it almost sounded like someone was playing a lick on an electric guitar. 

Flemons led the audience of Rose Bowl on a journey that left no one who came along for the ride disappointed. 

The night wrapped up with a smaller crowd but still an energetic one eager to dance the two-step with the Cajun Cornstalkers, a local Cajun band. Their violin players were particularly talented, playing beautiful melodic lines throughout most of the songs.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the wonderful soundboard technician for the night, Urbana’s own Frank Horger. I was slightly concerned about how loud the Rose Bowl would be Friday night and brought ear plugs to be prepared, but Frank was able to make all the groups sound amazing without blowing anyone away, a very tough job in a very small space.

All photos by Eric Frahm