Don't Say That Word
Marianne Flemming blew it. The nomadic Miami native had made a name for herself and her eclectic, category-defying ("Just don't call it folk") music in locales as diverse as the Bitter End in New York City, Le Tam Tam Club in Washington, D.C., the Video Cafe in London, England, and a smattering of venues in the Virgin Islands. She was well-known and highly regarded in and among the, um, acoustic-guitar-oriented musical community in Broward and Palm Beach counties, but, save for an occasional appearance at an open-mike night at Uncle Sam's Musicafe or Espresso Bongo, she managed to maintain a relatively low profile here in her hometown.
Then she made the critical tactical error of opening for master singer/songwriter/ storyteller Greg Brown during his January 18 appearance at the First Presbyterian Church on Brickell Avenue, and perfectly set the tone for Brown's droll wordplay and spellbinding baritone with a hearty dose of her own clever, husky-voiced, don't-call-it-folk music.
One of the biggest cliches in the music business is the opening act that shows up the headliner, the most glaring example of this syndrome being Jimi Hendrix's tuning up audiences for the Monkees in the early Sixties. Had she opened for anyone but the incomparable Brown, Flemming's polished stage presence, many-colored voice, and smart guitar work would have stolen the show. As it was, she more than held her own, and the cocoon of anonymity that had preceded her appearance began to unravel.
While Flemming's own Mermaid Records press release invites comparisons to Bonnie Raitt and Rickie Lee Jones, and others have attempted to define her style as "Kate Bush down on the bayou" and "truck stop Princess Stephanie," Flemming feels more of a kinship with Canadian performer Jane Siberry, due in no small part to the latter's integration of humor into her songwriting.
"Part of the reason I don't like the `folk' categorization," Flemming explains, "is that having a sense of humor can be a liability in folk music. Jane Siberry and Greg Brown are exceptions."
While her opening spot for Brown featured just Marianne and her guitar, she has been working of late with a rhythm section featuring bassist Tony Smith and drummer Marc Schwait, both of whom she met through a classified ad in the Rag. She has released a couple of cassettes featuring musicians she worked with in D.C., and has the new band pointed toward recording a CD in the not-too-distant future. They are currently going through the rigors of agreeing on a band name.
"I like `Marianne Flemming and the Eunuchs'," she teases, "but Tony and Marc weren't too receptive to it. We could make it a contest - come out to the show [tonight at Washington Square], name the band. The winner gets a date from hell with me, or a cassette. It'll be just like MTV. The lucky winner and a guest can come backstage, hang out with the band, and carry our equipment for us."
A University of South Florida grad with a major in theater and a minor in music, Flemming first began performing publicly while in college. Prior to that she had been something of a loner for whom music was not a natural gift. She has honed her skills and presence (not to mention her sense of humor) through years of performing in clubs, coffee houses, and concert venues, as well as on theatrical stages. "I was really shy, but I was always trying to be creative and artistic," she says. "I wanted to be the best woman guitarist in the world, which wasn't easy because I never played anywhere outside of my bedroom."
Luckily for fans of finely crafted songs brimming with dry wit and provocative sentiment, Flemming eventually overcame her shyness. Witness her description of a john about to engage the services of a street-corner sex surrogate (from "All I Can Give"): "He licks his lips/He counts his change/ His wife and kids will have to wait...." The song goes on to lament the inequities of a moral/legal system that sends a hooker to jail, but lets her upper-middle-class customer walk. Then there's her take on a soured relationship ("Crossing You Off the List"): "You're too short and I'm too tall/I don't comb my hair and you're going bald/It's time to end it all/Ring out the old and ring in the new/You're sick of me and I'm sick of you."
Pity the poor soul from "For O.C.," who still probably hasn't figured out what hit him: "My head has so much patience, but my heart she just can't wait/I'm learning what love is about every chance I get/I get a lot of chances." While most of Flemming's material springs from the well of personal experience, those observations occasionally spill over into social commentary. "Watching History Repeat" is a scathing, reggaefied condemnation of the excesses of western civilization, that manages to make its point without being dogmatic.
While the lyrics to "Seafood Mama" are innocent enough - "I've been fishing all day and night/I haven't caught a single bite/That's okay 'cause I can wait/I've got plenty of beer and lots of bait" - Flemming delivers them so coyly that you just know she's not really talking about fishing. Or is she?
"I was working at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa as a waitress and I was surrounded by all these fish and people who were really into fishing. So I got a fisherman's almanac and wrote it as just a fun sort of blues tune. But I guess it kind of lent itself to double-entendres."
Flemming will be returning to Skipper's in a few weeks - not as a waitress, but as a performer. She has developed followings in Tampa, D.C., and New England, and since relocating to South Florida in 1989 she has frequently returned to those places to play. "There are two schools of thought on that subject," she says. "The first is that if you stay in one place long enough, you can develop a good following. The second is that if you stay in one place long enough, people are going to get sick of you. Since I have a short attention span, I like getting out of town, and the following I'm developing is more regional than just local. When I first left Florida, there wasn't much happening in terms of original music. Now there's more of a scene, but you still have to be realistic. South Florida audiences are not accustomed to having original music around all the time. Most people in a bar want to hear something they're familiar with, and I respect that. So, to avoid boring them and boring myself, I like to take it on the road. Unfortunately, I can't afford to take the band with me."
Thankfully, she won't be gone too long. Flemming plans on staying in South Florida, writing songs, performing in clubs, putting together the CD, and waitressing during the season. "I want to keep on doing what I've been doing, but on a larger scale," she says. "I'd like to branch out into other forms of composing - maybe do a TV sitcom theme song, like the Dick Van Dyke Show. That would be great.
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