There are several apparent contradictions at Great Sage restaurant in Clarksville. Why is such a stylish little eatery hiding at the back of a shopping center off Route 108, on the fringes of Howard County civilization, instead of at Lake Kittamaqundi in the throbbing heart of downtown Columbia? Why is a powerhouse red-meat funk and R&B singer-guitarist like Damon Foreman performing in a spot where not a morsel of red meat, or meat of any color, is to be found?
Well, okay, so Clarksville IS part of civilization, and vegans DO like funk, blues, and jazz like us carnivores. Personally, I'd eat grass for dinner to hear Damon, who is one of our truly great local artists: He masters an astounding range of styles, including funk, boogie, R&B, blues, rock, jazz, reggae and even country—all performed with consummate virtuosity and panache.
With his sideman Bill Monroe keeping a steady groove on electric bass, Damon's fingers strum, pluck, tickle, slide and slap on the guitar strings as though he were playing with a familiar and well-loved pet. Vocally, he does a breathy Nat King Cole croon on a laid-back, jazzy rendition of "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." He goes into high falsetto on Stevie Ray Vaughn's "She's My Pride and Joy," punctuated by little cackles of wicked glee. He shrieks like a possessed panther on Jimi Hendrix' "Voodoo Child." He does "Georgia" like Ray Charles on steroids, then gives a meditative James Taylor feel to "My Girl." On Hendrix's "Are You Experienced," he goes all sultry and intimate, so any woman with a breath in her body will be nodding, "yes, yes, yes!!" I know for a fact that Damon is old enough to have grandkids (and may in fact have them), but he'll have sex appeal until the day he is laid in his grave.
Whatever he sings and plays, he is a charismatic performer, but he keeps a twinkle in his eye and a sense of playfulness that never lets things get too serious. He is adept at interacting with a crowd—or a lack of one. The clientele was sparse the night I went. A party of some eight diners sat in the back of the room, laughing and talking during the first few tunes. Although the bartender, the wait staff and I all applauded with energy, Damon broke into mock self-applause, joking, "Come on, now people, no need to hold back! No crowding now—room for everyone!" Finally the oblivious group caught on and gave him a round of well-deserved applause.
Later, he engaged with a little boy of about 6 as the boy and his parents were on the way out. The youngster was staring raptly at Damon's guitar, and Damon, leaning down and wiggling his eyebrows at the kid, said with a wink, "Pretty cool guitar, huh? Gets all the women!" The boy left with a huge smile on his little face. Then, while Damon was playing a flamenco tune with great brio, the party group in the back launched into an off-tune chorus of "Happy Birthday." Damon stopped playing, good-naturedly joined in the "Happy Birthday" song, and then resumed the flamenco where he'd left off, not missing a beat. Later, he played one of his own compositions titled "Damn"—with the rather quirky subject matter being his reaction to seeing his parked car struck by an uninsured driver in Ellicott City. He closed his two-hour set with a rollicking country romp, "We Love to Play that Funky Music."
I've followed Damon's performances on and off for some years, and was privileged to know him more personally since he was my daughter's guitar teacher, so I can corroborate that the warmth and humor he projects as a performer are genuine. Music is actually Damon's second career—he earned degrees in both music and engineering at Rutgers University and had spent some years in a successful career as an engineer. But the lure of music and the demand for his performances finally led him to take up music as his fulltime career.
He has performed worldwide with numerous high-profile musicians such as Martha Reeves, Patti LaBelle, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins and Wynton Marsalis. He frequently appears at Great Sage and at other venues throughout Howard County, such as the Frisco Grille, Bistro Blanc and the Smokin' Hot Bar and Grill; he performs solo or with a sideman, and sometimes with his group Blue Funk. The group has often appeared at the Columbia Lakefront Festival and at the annual Wine in the Woods event; Damon Foreman and Blue Funk are featured for the 2011 Wine in the Woods May 21-22.
Besides performing, Damon also composes and teaches music. He has spent time teaching guitar classes in Howard County high schools, and currently he heads up Damon Foreman Music Academy in Glenwood, Maryland, with classes for youth and adults in guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, voice and musical composition.
Great Sage features local performers every Thursday night from 8:30 to 10:30. The restaurant is tucked away at the back of the Clarksville Square Shopping Center on Route 108 just west of Route 32 in Clarksville. The décor is hip and stylish in sage green and persimmon colors, with a vaguely Southwest feel. You'll be served by a good-looking and attentive staff of waiters in black.
The menu is strictly vegan, but the offerings appear artful and sophisticated, with selections such as sesame crusted tofu steak, pan roasted and served over black forbidden rice with sesame seaweed salad, crispy wonton and a spicy miso-ginger sauce, and autumn squash and mushroom risotto with New Morning Farm organic butternut squash, shiitake mushrooms and leeks sautéed with creamy Arborio rice, lemon, walnut "parmesan" and a hint of truffle.
Although I love vegetables, I'm a confirmed carnivore, so I sought something substantial from the menu and chose the Great Sage chili and brown rice. The three-bean chili was hearty and creatively seasoned, and it came with a big chunk of moist, sweet cornbread and a generous side of dark green kale that was cooked but still slightly crisp, anointed with a subtly seasoned olive oil dressing. For dessert, I chose the warm raspberry crisp, which was to die for. I also ordered a bottle of red wine, which is at half price on Thursday nights. Call 443-535-9400 or visit their website at http://www.greatsage.com/ for more information on the menu and the music line-up. They are located at 5809 Great Sage Drive in Clarksville.