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CD Review:  Saffire -- The Uppity Blues Women

Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women

Havin’ the Last Word

 Alligator Records

 saffire-cd-art

By Stephanie Schorow

 

This defies the laws of physics, but I find that as I age I am becoming invisible. No less a person than writer Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain, The Shipping News) noted in an interview that this seems to happen to middle-aged woman. Whereas she reveled in her increasing transparency – the better to eavesdrop and pick up juicy dialogue for her next book – I find it frustrating that passersby seem to look right through me, that I seem no more noticeable than a puff of smoke. A friend of mine, who is my age, even told me that people seemed to bump into her more as she got older, as if she had to remind them she was still there.

 

But when I put in the earphones and crank up Havin’ The Last Word by Saffire - The Uppity Blues Women, I can feel myself becoming solid. My outline fills up with color, vibrancy and sparkle. I find myself wearing my age like a mantle, the various indignities of maturing flesh just another challenge to test my mettle. The righteous tones and fierce guitar of Gaye Adegbalola, the rocking keyboards and voice of Ann Rabson and the lilting force of Andra Faye’s vocals and strings make my stride a little stronger, my resolve firmer and my laughter a lot more raucous.

 

            That’s the power of the blues and, more to the point, the power of acoustic blues as sung by this sassy, talented trio who demonstrate that a few gray hairs and a few extra pounds can’t stop a zest for love and life. Havin’ the Last Word is just that for Saffire; after 25 years, the group is dissolving as the members each go their separate ways. The end comes after six studio albums, one live album and thousands of live shows that have won the Washington D.C., and Virginia-based band a national following. The trio has garnered numerous awards and has shared the stage with performers like Koko Taylor, Ray Charles and B. B. King.  Accomplished musicians and songwriters as well as kick-ass performers, Adegbalola, Rabson and Faye may be saying goodbye to one phase of their life, but they are getting ready for the next.

 

            And what a goodbye it is. The three get started with the spiritually cleansing and uplifting “Going Down to the River,” beginning with Faye’s bell-like vocals and rollicking mandolin playing. Things get down and dirty with “Nothin’ In Your House,” an ode to the good life of the bad girl, with its defiant anthem: “I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I’m not.”

 

            Saffire has typically mixed both traditional and original tunes, as well as novelty songs, in their performances; the new album is no exception. With a salacious wink, they do a delicious version of “Kitchen Man,” a Bessie Smith favorite, filled with culinary double entendres which will make you either very hungry or horny.  Or both.

 

            Love – at least love in the house of the blues – gets a workout here. Love can make a woman do all kind of things but she doesn’t have to give up her self-respect as Faye makes clear in the bold and brassy “Somebody’s Gotta Give” and Adegbalola makes plain in “I Can Do Bad All by Myself.” Sometimes, however, pride can get in the way of a possible reconciliation; the poignancy of love that hurts but stays hidden is explored with exquisite, throaty style by Rabson, who lies to an ex-lover that she’s really fine “Since You’ve Been Gone.” 

 

            The 16 songs of Havin’ the Last Word seem both topical and timeless. Faye’s country twang gets workout in “Blue Lullaby” and she does a riff on the theme of “too sexy for my shirt” with her smoking, sultry ode to the plus-size woman in “Too Much Butt.” Anyone who has recoiled in dismay finding that there really is a Size 0, will relish the sheer delight that Faye takes in the breadth of her own flesh. (“Ain’t no butts about it, baby.”) Listening to her makes me wonder if my increasing invisibility is due to my own discomfort in my thickening middle. But, as Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women make clear, health and happiness trump skinny any day.

 

            Perhaps the album’s most powerful cut is “Bald Headed Blues,” a funny, heartbreaking ode to surviving cancer. Adegbalola starts with the acknowledgement that losing hair to cancer means losing it “every where” and goes on to laud her hairless beauty, her growing peach fuzz and her final “Chia-Pet curls.” Chemotherapy becomes both enemy and savior.  “I didn’t battle cancer, yeah you know it battled me,” she declares. “But oh it did not win, I’m still standing, don’t you see.” The chorus of “Shake it, baby, shake it,” sung by her band mates, becomes a rousing cheer to fight back.

 

            Let’s face it – we all age, skinny and zaftig alike – and what makes the music of these uppity women so infectious that is their lyrics are honest, without self-pity, and their musicianship is skillful to a fault. While aging is addressed directly in “I’m Growing Older” and by rollicking metaphor in “Bald Eagle,” the entire album can be taken as a laugh in the face of things that we can’t control.  That’s even though the trio takes utter control of their message, from the tight guitar and keyboard work to the undimmed power of their voices. Their blues are too powerful to ignore, and when I have Havin’ the Last Word ringing in the ear buds of my Ipod, I feel like my battle-weary. middle-aged self is triumphant, joyful and visible to anyone in my way.

 

 

For more see http://www.uppityblueswomen.com.  The site also links to the sites of the individual musicians and there are also clips of “Hot Flash,” an upcoming documentary on the band. Saffire is also scheduled to perform in Chicago on Sept. 27 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

 

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