Saturday, February 21, 2009

Saffire completes memorable run

Its been twenty-five years since the trio of Gaye Adegbalola, Ann Rabson and Earline Lewis first started performing around Fredericksburg, VA and Washington, D.C.. This writer remembers catching them for the first time at a DC Blues Society charity concert at Georgetown University and picking up their self-produced cassette, “Middle Age Blues,” mostly compiled from classic blues with a few originals, including “Middle Age Blues Boogie,” which became the trio’s theme song with its still memorable refrain “I want a young, young man.” Having the chance to see them on a regular basis in Washington I was delighted to find out they had signed with Alligator in 1989 I believe. Their debut Alligator disc, the eponymously titled “SAFFIRE - The Uppity Blues Women,” was a surprising, but well deserved, success.

A story I did from interviews of them for the DC Blues Society newsletter was the basis for first major story on them that appeared in one of the early issues of “Blues Revue.” Along the way, Earline Lewis departed to be replaced by Andra Faye who in addition to bass, also displayed a multi-instrumental talent on mandolin, guitar, fiddle and more. In the ensuing years they have performed countless times as well as continued to teach at blues workshop programs, mentoring a large number of modern acoustic blues acts. From the Washington DC and Tidewater, VA area such groups as BluesWorks and MSG the Acoustic Trio mine traditional blues along with adding contemporary originals rooted in traditional sources. Undoubtedly the novelty of a trio of mature women performing acoustic blues itself was a source of appeal among a variety of audiences that went beyond the usual audience for Alligator’s house-rocking electric blues bands. But their longevity is evidence that their music had so much more substance than what may have been an initial novelty to some.

“Havin’ the Last Word,”is their eighth album of new recordings for Alligator (this does not include the excellent compilation “Deluxe Edition”) and first since 2001’s “Ain’t Gonna Hush.” The title refers to the fact that this is the trio’s swan song together with the ensuing performances to be among their final regular ones together. Each will continue the solo careers they have each been engaged in the past several years. Unlike their previous albums, there is only one classic blues revived here, “Kitchen Man,” and the rest are fresh tunes composed by the three along with others by EG Kight, and others. The opening song, Carla Daruda’s “Going Down to the River” has all three trading verses about going to the river and wash their troubles away with Ann holding the bottom together like Blind John Davis before Andra Faye takes a crisp mandolin solo. Its followed by Gina DeLuca’s “Nothin’ in My House,” where Gaye delivers the sassy lyrics about let them say what they will, “if I want to honky tonk all night ... what do I care, I ain’t got nothing in their house,” with Ann adding a rollicking solo. Ann revives “Kitchen Man” from the pen of Andy Razaf and Edna Pinkard,” with a stately piano and Andra Faye’s complimentary mandolin. EG Kight & Tom Horner contributed “Somebody’s Gotta Give,” a song that Andra Faye belts out (and one can imagine easily being translated into a band format by Andra and her band The Mighty Good Man).

Other highlights include Bald Headed Blues,” an original by Gaye where she addresses consequences of chemotherapy and dancing with life and not death. Andra Faye adds fiddle to Ann’s not completely reflective “Since You’ve Been Gone,”while her own “Blue Lullaby” has a country flavor. EG Kight and Tom Horner collaborated with Ann for “Travelin’ at the Speed of Love,” a celebratory boogie with Andra Faye’s fiddle adding a nice counterpoint to her jaunty piano. Gaye’s “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” has a nice guitar solo from Ann while Gaye sings about how bad things have gone “so she needs to take a payday loan,” but she does not need anyone else’s help. Andra Faye is playful in celebrates her body on having “Too Much Butt,” while Gaye’s “Bald Eagle,” is a lustful celebration of female sexuality with spirited mandolin and piano in the backing. Deanna Bogart’s “I’m Growing Older,” an humorous about the inevitable as Andra Faye is quite comfortable about aging like fine wine and becoming a wilder woman. The album concludes with another Ann Rabson collaboration with Kight and Horner, “The Bad Times,” with echoes of “Drown in My Own Tears,” in its melody, noting that we have had bad and sad times, but held on to faith and through it all these times these words of wisdom that “bad times make the good times better, bad times make our love strong … good times will be here before long.”

Saffire has provided many with some real good music over a quarter of a century that has given us good times to get past the bad and sad times. It is a cliche that all good things must come to an end, and while the musical partnership of Saffire - the Uppity Blues Women may be ending, their musical legacy is firmly established and will be enjoyed for many more years just as each of the members will establish more of their own legacy. Like Jim Brown leaving professional football, “Havin’ the Last Word,” has Saffire ending their run while still performing at the highest level.

(This review was originally published in Jazz & Blues Report # 313 which you can download at www,

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