LADIES SING THE BLUES: A Music Company Production

On a blustery evening not long ago, I found myself witnessing one of the greatest nights of music I have heard in my forty years of playing and following R&B. This concert featured four of the most seasoned, savvy, and inspired vocalists, backed by a cracker-jack quartet, that this listener has ever been privileged to experience. The aforementioned ladies are Lila Mori, Juanita Martin, Erica Brown and Jill Watkins, and the feeling these singers brought to the room was so professional, so enjoyable, so uniting and inspiring that to not respond would be a crime. Each has her true story, and each told it truthfully during this three plus hours. No listener could ask for more.

The band, consisting of Tim Zahn – piano, Dave Deason – drums, Brad Eastin – tenor sax, and Santi Guarnera – bass violin and arranger, opened the night with the Herbie Mann chestnut “Comin’ Home, Baby” (sans Bob Dorough’s lyrics)  by setting the low-volume, intense, atmospheric mood the audience came to expect right until the last note.

Then, out walks Erica Brown.

Nothing can prepare an audience for the sheer joy new listeners find in Ms. Brown’s performance. She is engaging and funny, at once self-effacing and supremely confident. Opening with “Night Time Is the Right Time,” she also showed that she can really deliver the blues. Her middle range, dynamic voice soared, then growled, then soared again, insisting and pleading until the mood for the night (if you know what I mean) was now set. Musicians have what’s called a “get over number” to get the crowd on their side. “Night Time” got over all right. Erica was in the driver’s seat; you wanna take a ride, you better fasten your belt. (There is a feeling of continued anticipation in the rare art of great blues performance: each song builds on the energy and execution of the last one, and you find yourself thinking “How you gonna top that?)   But Erica did, with “I Want Love,” followed by the heartfelt blue ballad “Nothing Takes the Place of You.” And suddenly I’m a believer.

Juanita Martin simply radiates joy and good-will. Her confident smile and warm, bright eyes invite you to share these moments with her — even before the first note arrives. Her opening lines on “I’ll Take Romance” glisten; the feelings build, it just plain swings. Then the tender Ray Noble ballad “The Very Thought of You” (serious upper range requirements here – will she make it? Soon, we find out Juanita has an extra half octave to spare. . .).  Serious stuff here: Sarah and Dinah and Nina and Nancy . . . oh, and “the blues”? How about the “Lady Bear Blues”? Salty and knowing, it closes the first portion of her show unforgettably.

A less seasoned singer than Boulder’s Jill Watkins would have been sweating bullets. . . . ”How am I gonna top that?” Not this singer’s first county fair, her tiara and gown and liquid grace, her ease with the audience, her humor and soon, her songs, let us know that we are in the presence of a real artistic event: these women are not in the kind of competition so wearily familiar in the “blues” scene, the loudest-yet gunfight at the guitar slinger’s corral. They are feeding on one another’s energies, inspired by what they have heard – and what they are making us hear. They love this more than the audience does – if that’s even possible. So Jill ratchets it up another notch with a charged up version of the heart torn lover’s confrontational “Damn Your Eyes.” Pure conviction, pure delivery.

O.K. I surrender. I’ve somehow stumbled into the real deal. I’m 30 years younger and 20 pounds lighter.

Time for some fun with “Bare Necessities,” and the band is completely up to the task as Jill swings back and forth from temptress to clown, to everyone’s delight. And close it out with some Gershwin, “Summertime.” O my. And on deck, Lila Mori.

You could tune a piano using Lila’s voice and everyone knows it. A local legend and Broadmoor regular, yes, but few people have heard her really sing the blues. So, “How’s she gonna” . . . never mind:  with a rare Percy Mayfield selection, the exacting, poignant “Lost Mind.” Then to the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer penned “Come Rain or Come Shine.” She sure knows her songwriters, and interprets them, breathes into them, and does them  most proud. Tone, suggestion, dynamics, nuance . . . Lila’s got it all . . . and just visible behind the curtain, three other Ladies of the Blues finger popping, hip swaying, rooting their gal on. Like the man said, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” Finish it off with some “Frim Fram Sauce” and then Sippie Wallace’s cautionary tale, “Women Be Wise” – a group effort – and, whew, intermission.

A short note on the band: Dave Deason’s playing really suits my ear. His tones, taste, and technique, his musicianship and dynamic sensibility, and sheer listening skills have built his reputation as the drummer who can make a band sound good! Tim Zahn left his accordian at home this time, but showed mastery of the acoustic piano like to get smiles from his influences, which run the whole gamut of twentieth century American piano approaches. His muscular, percussive attack, creative left hand  and full range ear show familiarity with players from Jelly Roll, FatsWaller, James P. Johnson through to Jerry Lee, Professor Longhair and modern greats like Herbie Hancock. Brad Eastin’s feathery tenor sax tone played with the vocalists, sometimes shadowing and sometimes countering their lines. The bass violin chores were handled by Santi Guarnera, the region’s most under-appreciated bassist, who also deserves credit as the arranger for the show.

I noticed that the theater was still full when the group reconvened after intermission; despite the bad weather, the crowd had hung tough. Anticipation, approbation, attention: these are the hallmarks of a sophisticated and appreciative audience – and this crowd was there and ready to be transported – again.

Juanita opened up with Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and followed it with a range stretching and breezy ”I’m in the Mood for Love.” Jill joined her for the Quincy Jones blues “Sister” from “The Color Purple,” and the sisterhood, the mutual respect and honor shown by two great artists, was evident in the music and the glow. A real highlight of the show was Erica Brown’s rendition of “Amazing Grace,” done over the dark minor changes of “House of the Rising Sun,” making an old song utterly new. The energy kept building; it was magic, unbelievable, direct as a Straight No Chaser. Lila sweetened the mix with “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You?” cruised down “Route 66,” and then delivered the greatest and true-est  version of Etta James’ “At Last” I have ever heard.  I held up my hand. Mere mortals don’t sing like that. Mere mortals don’t get to hear music like this. Normal reality had generously disappeared, on vacation for the evening. 

Jill Watkins brought the event full circle, tearing up Freddie King’s “Tore Down” and following it with a sizzling “I Never Loved a Man.” She had us cracking up during “Middle Aged Blues Boogie” (the women laughing even harder than the men. . . ?) and she took us out on the back porch with “Steamroller Blues.” Also in the down and dirty vein was the closer, a medley called “G-Stacular!” to give all four singers their last good-byes.

In the final round of applause the audience showed their appreciation, stamping, whistling, hooting, cheering these Ladies of the Blues for their grooves and moves, their affirmation and vibes, their pure- as-country-water artistry. 

The Real Blues is not a format but a feeling, a feeling which can be imbued in nearly any musical genre. It is an emotional language, and you can’t fake it. Like swing, it is defined not by what it is but by what it does. That night I heard every kind of blues I need to hear, from both the singers and the band. Each performer brought out the better angels, and the participating, engaged audience, God bless ‘em, met the artists at least half way. This doesn’t always happen. Thank you, ladies . . . thank you.

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Dan Todd read literature at Colorado College and law at UCLA before returning to Colorado to teach and play music. He has taught at PPCC, his alma mater, since 1987.