Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Denise Borden and Joe Deuel
A handwritten sign posted on the interior door of Caffe Lena proclaimed “Sold Out!,” and the two sets of music that ensued within the landmark venue on a warm Friday night justified why it would be standing room only. The performance was so hot that I had two pens run out of ink – thankfully, I had brought along a Sharpie as a backup.
After a rousing introduction by Caffe director Sarah Craig, Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez opened with a poignant “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” a soul classic written in 1964 by Roosevelt Jamison, who passed away last month. A song associated with O.V. Wright, Otis Redding, and more recently, Buddy Miller. Ohlman’s performance this night could join that list of definitive renditions. She nailed the longing, pleading and devotion innate to each and every verse.
Deep soul and blues informed Ohlman’s two sets. “The Deep End” sounded like an upbeat Arthur Alexander song that must have flown under the radar of Jagger and Richards, with Larry Donahue (drums) and Michael Colbaith (living up to “The Buddha of the Bass” sobriquet that Ohlman bestowed on him) getting the crowd clapping along. Cliff Goodwin’s Telecaster, playing off the bee-hived singer’s acoustic, was guitar-weaving at its best. “If you think it’s all sweetness and light, it’s not!” cracked Ohlman prior to a swaggering “Love Makes You Do Stupid Things.” Goodwin’s slide guitar rattled the glasses on the tables during an adaptation of Sunnyland Slim’s “Highway 61,” a song that was a favorite of the late Cub Koda.
“We’re going to lean on history tonight,” remarked Ohlman as she took in the significance of playing at Caffe Lena. She dedicated “Piece of My Heart” to its songwriter, Jerry Ragovoy, and Erma Franklin, who had recorded the song to perfection a few years before Janis Joplin’s version went national. With great restraint, Ohlman and company played its melody slow and soulful, in a cadence reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s take on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.
A connoisseur of the blues, Ohlman recalled the impact Chess Records on her formative years in “The Seventh Sons,” belting out her love for Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in particular over a vibrant Bo Diddley beat. In closing out the first set’s finale, she offered shout-outs to Eddie Kirkland, Shemekia Copeland, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and others with a beatific smile on her face.
After an intermission, and following some Caffe Lena remembrances by local artist Joseph Simone (“Lena loved talent in any shape or form, and she would have loved this band!”), Ohlman & Rebel Montez returned to raucous applause. Three originals, sassy and gritty, set the tone of a roadhouse revival taking shape. Yet it was all a warm-up to the unexpected highlight of the night.
An avid record collector as well as contributing writer for publications like Elmore (a must-have subscription, by the way), Ohlman recalled the serendipity of buying vintage Southern soul 45s at a yard sale several years ago, and how within those three shoe boxes was one song, Van and Titus’s “Cry Baby Cry,” that moved her like no other. “The hair on the back of my neck stood up!” she recalled. With a laugh, she also remembered how she called her friend Dion and his wife to corroborate that such a perfect song could have existed without massive acclaim. She even raved about the song to Paul Shaffer, Bonnie Raitt, Chandler Travis and G.E. Smith, her dear friend from the Saturday Night Live Band. Ohlman’s version on 2009’s The Deep End is excellent, but hearing “Cry Baby Cry” live in such an intimate setting, with one of its original singers seated at the center table, simply could not be topped. To the astonishment of the crowd, George Brantley (aka “Van”) had driven up for the show all the way from Knoxville, TN. As the song’s plaintive notes faded away, he joined everybody in giving the band a standing ovation that any musician would envy.
How does a band top that moment?
The goodwill and high energy still ran high. Ohlman encouraged the crowd to get hip to a 22-track “Get You a Healing” compilation to benefit the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. She also cracked jokes with the ladies in the audience about the late, great Hound Dog Taylor – “He had six working fingers on each hand” – before locking into a wild take of his “Give Me Back My Wig,” a fine showcase for everyone in the band. Goodwin brought a bit of the early Who’s fire in his rhythm work to “Not Fade Away,” while two originals, “A Shot of You” (by request) and “Wicked Time,” were marvels of keeping the groove, Donahue and Colbaith bringing to mind NRBQ in their ecstatic prime.
Not to be denied, the crowd was back on their feet to call out Ohlman & Rebel Montez for one more. They got two winners: the poignant love song “The Gone of You” from The Deep End and Bob Dylan’s gem from The Basement Tapes, “Crash on the Levee.”
May the “Bee-Hive Queen” and her remarkable band buzz around Saratoga Springs again sometime soon…
NOTE: It’s not quite Saratoga Springs, but it’s close. Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez are booked for a return trip to Nippertown this summer, wrapping up the Lake George Arts Project’s Wednesday night concert series in Lake George’s Shepard Park on August 28. Admission is free.
CHRISTINE OHLMAN & REBEL MONTEZ SET LIST
That’s How Strong My Love Is (Roosevelt Jamison)
The Deep End (Ohlman)
Love Makes You Do Stupid Things(Ohlman)
Highway 61 (Sunnyland Slim; adapted with new lyrics by Ohlman)
Piece of My Heart (Jerry Ragovoy)
Sugar Melts (Ohlman)
The Price of Love (The Everly Brothers)
The Seventh Sons (Ohlman)
Then God Created Woman (Ohlman)
Love You Right (Ohlman)
Cry Baby Cry (James E. Cason)
Get You a Healing
Give Me Back My Wig (Hound Dog Taylor)
Not Fade Away (Buddy Holly)
A Shot of You (Ohlman)
Wicked Time (Ohlman)
The Gone of You (Ohlman/Goodwin)
Crash on the Levee (Bob Dylan)