Saturday, May 12, 2012

Women of the Blues Is Flawed Musical Review

“Women of the Blues” is a blues review that I mentioned last weekend in my overview of upcoming blues events in the Mid-Atlantic Region. As I write this it is in the second week of its three week run at the Creative Cauldron in Falls Church, Virginia.

On the Creative Cauldron’s website it is described as “present an original Blues music review featuring the lives and music of some of the greatest Blues divas of the 20th Century.” If they used Rhythm and Blues one might one have perhaps less objection but we have a self-described blues review yet a good portion of the songs are not blues. Furthermore as great as Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin are, I would not use the word blues diva to describe them. Additionally, a blues review that include songs, blues-tinged as they may be, associated with rock singers Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt and Melissa Etheridge but nothing associated with Ma Rainey, Dinah Washington (who was labelled the the Queen of the Blues) or singer-guitarist Memphis Minnie, three of the most important women in the evolution of the blues, is inexcusable. I also note that there is also the omission of such significant contemporary artists like Denise LaSalle and Barbara Carr whose audience is still primarily African-American.

I have no issue with having a review including songs associated with Aretha Franklin or Etta James, but both artists did record blues songs. As much as Aretha’s recording “I Never Loved a Man” is one of the great records of the soul era, it is a soul record. Rather than that, it would have been interesting to have heard a rendition of “Ramblin’” which Aretha recorded which was one of several songs Aretha recorded that covered recordings by the great Big Maybelle. Similarly, three songs associated with Etta James are performed which may be songs identified with her, but are deep soul songs or the ballad “At Last.”

One realizes that within the confines of a cabaret review there are only so many songs that could have been performed, but I suggest Lil Green’s recording “Why Don’t You Do Right,” or “In the Dark,” Dinah Washington’s “Evil Gal Blues,” Dinah’s rendition of the standard “Trouble in Mind” or her “Gambler’s Blues,“ would better fit the description of the review. And Dinah was a blues diva. The last number incorporated in the lyrics one of the few actual blues that Billy Holiday recorded, and was covered by B.B. King and Otis Rush. I should say that the inclusion of the late Washington D.C. street singer’s Flora Molton, ”Sun’s Gonna Shine” is an unexpected, imaginative, and welcome, selection.

The four featured vocalists, Carolyn Cole, Ashleigh King, Shayla Simmons and Tarina Szemzo bring their voices although there is some unevenness. There is a nice rendition of “I Never Loved a Man” with the backing band but also with a cover of the Janis Joplin recording of “Cry Baby” which is as shrill sounding as Joplin’s own recording reproduces the shrillness of Joplin’s cover. The rendition of Alberta Hunter’s “My Castle’s Rockin’,” almost comes across as as a campfire sing-along. I had the pleasure of seeing this grand dame of American music and the blues sing this song and she had a presence and personality totally missing in the performance here.

The songs are tied together by a helpful narrative provided by the performers. The backing band, led by pianist Jonathan Tuzman, was uneven in the accompaniments. They sounded comfortable with contemporary material, but not on older material like as “My Castle’s Rockin’,” or songs associated with Billie Holiday as “Lady Sings the Blues,” and “Mean To Me.” This added to the uneven quality of the evening. The acoustic backing on the rendition of “Sun Is Shining” was nicely done.

This is not to say that the review was not entertaining. My better half enjoyed it very much as did most at the performance I attended. The unevenness of the performances may have been partially the result of it being the second night. There were enjoyable performances but I found only a few to be exceptional.

Here is a list of the songs performed including songs whose inclusion in self-described blues review I question. They are generally torch songs, ballads, deep soul or rock and I am not saying none of these songs should have been included since some illustrate the impact of the blues perhaps, but having more blues songs would have made the description of the review more accurate. I have italicized those songs which I would suggest are not blues: Blues in the Night/ My Castle’s Rockin’/ Down By the Riverside/ I Never Loved a Man/ I’d Rather Go Blind/ Lady Sings The Blues/ Wild Woman Don’t Have the Blues/ It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World/ A Good Man Is Hard To Find/ Mean To Me/ Hoochie Coochie Man/ I Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl/ Sun’s Gonna Shine/ Stormy Monday/ Strange Fruit/ Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out/ Women Be Wise/ Cry Baby/ At Last/ I’m the Only One/ Guilty/ Give Me One Reason/ Something’s Got a Hold On Me/ (One For My Baby (One For the Road)/ Proud Mary.

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