Saturday, January 26, 2008

Catherine Russell + Carolina Chocolate Drops @ Joe's Pub 1/12/08

Part II: Catherine Russell (for Part I: Carolina Chocolate Drops go here; Russell reportage delayed on account of travel and bad-bad virus)

To think I almost didn't stay for Catherine Russell's set. I was suffering some sonic exhaustion from recording most of the day followed by interstate travel with heavy equipment. It was the coat check person saying "What you're not going to stay? There's another set!" That struck me in some way, reminding me that live versus online .mp3 performance can be a 180 degree experience. See, I listened to the Russell sample on the Joe's Pub site and well, it didn't really strike me one way or another. But Russell live is another Concha Buika situation. Live, even from 50 feet away Russell can stroke you cheek like a sistafriend, and make you blush deep like a favorite aunt talking about the ardent good lovin' of the man that you know simply as Uncle Joseph, as she's hippin' you to the complexities of a woman's sensuality. At a self-proclaimed 50 years old, Catherine Russell (pictured above right) is all that and a bag of honey-kissed plaintain chips--no lie.

After hearing her live I can't help revisit that energy upon listening to her studio recordings. And it is indeed a pleasure. Fortunately, she's playing Joe's Pub again on February 27th, a full set this time--and she'll be celebrating the release of her latest CD, Sentimental Streak. Russell comes from a highly impressive musical lineage (more on that below), and has performed or recorded with a host of talented and celebrated musicians such as Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Madonna, and Rosanne Cash among others. She has studied and performed withing a wide variety of musical genres, but when it came time to record her album she found herself drawn to her great love of string-band and early roots music and jazz. Her work shows her to be a true aficionado and mistress of this era.

On Saturday Russell started out with an unexpected knockout punch for the audience. A warning for an ardent but unwanted suitor, "My Man's An Undertaker (And He's Got A Coffin Just Your Size)" (by Eddie Kirkland and Mamie Thomas?), which she delivered with wit, perfect intonation and timing, and a womanly charm that made even her "jump back jack" delivery so seductive you almost felt sorry for the chump. But not quite. Most of her songs from the evening came from the 1920s and 30s and weren't just songs they were full stories of a particular moment, a way of life, or an attitude. She introduced Hoagy Carmichael's "New Orleans" by telling the story of her Panamanian father Luis Russell's having chosen the city as the destination of his first journey outside Central America, and his new home, after winning the lottery. Her audience rapport was warm and inviting from the first. One thing I learned after this second song is when Russell rears back her petite frame to deliver a note, know you're in for a treat.

The next offering was from 1927, a song that both Alberta Hunter (pictured left) and Fats Waller recorded back in the day, but I haven't been able to determine if Waller is its author. "My Old Daddy's Got A Brand-New Way to Love," (by Mike Jackson?) started out with Russell singing, "I gotta man who's gotta a new way of making love/ and an old daddy with skin like a silken glove with such conviction that the experience she conjured was almost cinematic, thanks in some part to the great lighting person at Joe's Pub (more on that later). It's no wonder that Russell has also taught voice (at Berklee College of Music in Boston), her vocal technique is really so married to her performance technique that one doesn't notice the distinction between the two. But they aren't the same technique, it's just that Russell has honed a method of singing from the heart and solar plexus with an open throat that makes the air molecules around her vibrate with sound as though it's flowing around and from her immediate presence. Her band unobtrusively backs her up with great timing and seeming ease (they really make it look effortless). What's obvious in how they play as an ensemble is considerable respect for the storied jazz songs of this early 20th century period as well as Russell's respect for this band.

Russell then smoothly transitioned to the latter half of the twentieth with an arrangement of Sam Cooke's "Put Me Down Easy," on which she played mandolin. Russell's mother, the bass player (she plays a Fender)/guitarist/pianist/arranger/vocalist Carline Ray (pictured left) was in the audience. Russell acknowledged her as "my best teacher" quoting her mother as saying, "there are only two kinds of music: good and bad." Her double bassist Lee Hudson gave her great support on this tune, as did guitarist Matt Munisteri (a New York native bluegrass banjo player from age nine!),--giving her accents and supporting the floor of the melody. Then during the bridge, Russell played backing rhythm on the mandolin (a Gibson) while Munisteri soloed. The band, which included Mark Shaw on piano, was great at not crowding her on this tune that has an undercurrent bass tugging below a flowing slower vocal. On this tune as well as the ones prior the light person contributed to focusing the energy of the set, by progressively closing in Catherine Russell's ideal lighting which is a warm, bluish-magenta. Wow, what a great mix of gels that was for Russell's presence.

Next was a tune from 1929, "I've Got That Thing," co-written by her father, the aforementioned Luis Russell (pictured right) who was Louis Armstrong's arranger and musical director. As Russell indicated, the tune has one of those titles you can interpret as you like, "Whatever that 'thing' is to you." She also played a mandolin with a pickup on this song, with Munisteri playing a 6-string banjo into a mic (6-string banjos don't have great sustain, but some have pickups for amplification). The song featured lines like, "Before all the fellas wouldn't look at me/but now all they're ready for my company."

Russell started to close the set with a Pearl Bailey tune, "I'm Lazy, That's All" adding the aside, "another tune that's not social commentary, just how I feel sometimes." This was a reference to the song she'd started the set with "So Little Time (So Much to Do)" from her forthcoming CD Sentimental Streak (February 2008). Russell delivered these playful lyrics with a little grit of lethargy in her voice. Delivering lines like "People say you know you ain't good for nothin'/But nothin' ain't so good for me" with humorous apathetic arrogance as though even doing "nothing" is just too much to consider, brought appreciative chuckles from the crowd. But when she languidly repeatedly the line "I had a man, and he was really sweet/but making love took too much energy" surrendering the "much energy" to a prolonged melodic yawn, the crowd roared and heartily applauded her dead-on timing and musicality.

The set ended with Bessie Smith's "Kitchen Man" which she started by thanking everyone at Joe's Pub, "lights, sound, tip your waitstaff and bartenders well." From behind the bar, near where I was standing, came the heartfelt comment, "I love her." Well, Russell let us know "I love his cabbage, cream his hash/I gotta have some of that succatash...Just wild about his turnip tops" When she laid a strategically placed hand her thigh with the line "Nobody else will ever touch my hams," the crowd hooted and howled. I thought the front row was going to go up in smoke. These are classic lyrics but their delivery can go the way of pure camp; still genuine fun but positioning the suggested sexuality solely in the land of the fantastic. Russell put forth the melody and words in manner that made us all true believers, and the great lyrics continued, "When I eat his donuts all I leave is the hole..." We were being treated masterful Church of Pleasure testifying, and then came that penultimate line "His bologna never fails to satisfy." It's not as though I had never heard Kitchen Man before, but I knew I was hearing a singular version that evening, an inspiring instilling of sensuality and spirituality, plus historical legacy come to life. Wow. What can I say but, wow, an amazing performer--it was concert, master class, and live cinema rolled into one. So glad I stayed.

• Catherine Russell website and MySpace page
• Her CDs: Cat (2006) and Sentimental Streak (2008)
• Catherine Russell on Tavis Smiley on September 13, 2006
• Her mother, Carline Ray, multi-instrumentalist, arranger (and second generation Juilliard School of Music graduate) on NPR's Jazz Profiles: Women in Jazz and at The Jazz Museum in Harlem in 2005
• Her father, Luis Russell's bio and discography at

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