In Praise of Uppity Blues Women

Quick question: what do you get when you combine the Blues with a bunch of very talented, largely postmenopausal women? You get what I sure didn’t expect: one hell of a really terrific show by a three women Blues band: Sapphire, The Uppity Blues Women.

Thanks to my wife’s friend Debby, who had seen them perform before we found ourselves last night at The Birchmere in Alexandria. It was our first trip to the Birchmere, an out of the way place that bills itself as “America’s Legendary Music Hall”. It’s clearly not the Kennedy Center since it sits off Mount Vernon Avenue in a neighborhood that has seen much better days and in a building that would otherwise be an ugly and undistinguished warehouse. The Birchmere seems to attract an eclectic mix of established and up and coming groups. At the Birchmere you sit at tables in front of the stage and generally order food before and during the shows. We arrived early for dinner, which was modestly priced and enjoyed our desserts during the performance itself.

Sapphire must have developed something of a local reputation because the crowd had many more women than men. Many in the audience had seen the group before. It attracts a liberal but down to earth snarky crowd of predominantly middle-aged women. All seemed more than ready (anxious even) to laugh and have a good time. Sapphire delivered because Sapphire is about attitude as much as it is about the Blues. It’s an in your face, no holds barred feminist Blues band, if you can imagine it. Most of their songs dwelled on the feelings and attitudes of middle-aged women that were for the most part completely irreverent and in your face. Somehow these women had totally missed charm school. At least during the performance they turn off their tactful side and enable us to see their femininity in its most raw form.

The result is hilarious and fun. Sapphire consists of Gaye Adegbalola, Ann Rabson and Andra Faye. You would expect a Blues band to be African American, but Gaye is the only one in the band that meets that qualification. Gaye and Ann appear to be older than Andra and could even be considered grandmotherly. None of these women could remotely be considered to be “babes” in the Hollywood sense of the world. But don’t make the mistake that they are not women deeply in touch with their femininity. They let it all hang out. They don’t care whether you are bothered by their less than model-like bodies, age or weight.

But here’s the best part: while their attitude is just delightful and often outrageous, the most amazing thing is how talented all three women are. All have wonderful Blues voices. All have an amazing command of the instruments they play. Ann Rabson, for example, is just a wizard on the piano. Gaye perhaps does her best work on the harmonica, but her true treasure is her kick ass voice and the way she gets livelier the more she gets riled up. Andra’s voice is also a treasure, but she wowed me with her mastery of the fiddle, mandolin and acoustic bass. Generally one woman leads off a number and the others back her up. No one woman dominates the group.

Many of their songs are so funny it’s hard not to find yourself rolling in the aisles. You wonder how they get away with some of them. One was a song in praise of her “silver beeper” (vibrator). Another was about the virtue of women with thunder thighs and the places they can take their men with this unique asset. At least half of their songs seem to be original. All are full of heart and very well done.

Looking at their booking schedule it appears that Sapphire is very much a part time gig for these women. I assume they have other lives and perhaps jobs outside of the group. Perhaps this is good because this allows them to have plenty of time to rest up between gigs. Sapphire is about the Blues combined with a sassy attitude. If you are for some reason offended by women singing about how she really feels you probably won’t like them. But I find it hard to imagine anyone other than someone who is completely soulless or stuck up (some conservative Republicans come to mind) who would not enjoy their music.

I found Sapphire to be not just good dirty fun but refreshing. It’s fun to see women without the masks. We men spend much of our lives pretending to be people we are not. Listening to Sapphire reminded me that women do the same thing: wholly investing themselves in the Madison Avenue version of femininity and Norman Rockwell’s depiction of motherhood. I can understand Sapphire’s appeal to women. Finally there is a group of women who unapologetically sing about the way they feel on the inside, in a soulful and in your face sort of way. For any woman who needs to escape from her tired feminine roles for a few hours I can recommend attending a concert by Sapphire as an ideal escape. Men should enjoy it too, even if we are sometimes the butt of their humor.

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