LIVE: Thornetta Davis – A Mid-summer Night’s Dream @ Music Haven Stage 8/4/2019
A perfect night!
A crescent moon shone down on a full house captured in a fairy tale come to life at a time when our country has become as dangerous as Vietnam a half-century ago.
And it happened in Schenectady, New York.
Mona Golub looked to the heavens and told a crowd of several thousand, “I know my mom is smiling down on me.” The audience rose in unison and gave her a standing ovation. The woman who has turned Music Haven into the jewel of Central Park, Schenectady, in 30 years of premiere concert attractions almost lost her composure. Her mother, a civic leader, and matriarch of the Golub Corporation’s Price Chopper/Market 32 dynasty passed away recently.
Presenting world-class entertainment for free outdoors is a tightrope. When the weather, the music, the sponsors, and the fans all come together, it’s a heady experience. And when the event is a diamond that sparkles in its setting, that experience can elevate moods, inspire creativity and instill civic pride. I was proud when I greeted Detroit Blues Queen Thornetta Davis and her band as they exited their van behind the stage. How many times in my life have I winced as one artist after another would make some comment about not being able to pronounce Schenectady, or infer that the city is a New York City backwater.
Not this time.
Thornetta Davis understands the Schenectady conundrum. She knows what it means to be in the shadows of greatness, the sidelines of larger than life fame. She may be the Queen of Detroit Blues, but that distinction does not erase the struggle she has as a small fish in a big pond. In the blues world, Detroit plays second fiddle to Chicago, Memphis, and The Delta. Motown and Aretha Franklin may have put the Motor City on the musical map, but how many people remember that John Lee Hooker was from Detroit? How many know who blues interpreter Bettye LaVette is, let alone that she’s from Detroit?
Thornetta Davis is as talented as any of the Detroit artists mentioned above. And her place in the blues pantheon is one that underlines classic blues qualities. Her presence physically and vocally recalls the blues mamas of the 20s and 30s. She bleeds all over the stage, digging deep into her personal life tacitly acknowledging her pain in wild abandon as her band adroitly showcases her explosions with an incredibly tight structure that calls to mind New Orleans’ Neville Brothers and the Meters who blend blues, jazz, and world music influences without ever leaving the street.
Dressed all in black with Detroit Girls Rock emblazoned on her ample bosom, Thornetta commanded the stage ratcheting up the ATTITUDE with each succeeding song. “This song goes out to all you dirty dogs out there,” she proclaimed as she launched into “That Don’t Appease Me” from her 2016 album Honest Woman. “My motto is move it while you can” she bellowed going into “I Gotta Sing The Blues.” Her brassy and boisterous presence was in full bloom by the time she tackled “Am I Just A Shadow.”
She also sang “I’d Rather Be Alone,” underlining her message with the proclamation “I can do better all by myself” and “I Need A Whole Lotta Lovin’ to Satisfy Me,” all from Honest Woman.
“Rhythm of The Blues” is a 30-year-old chestnut from her days with a local Detroit band the Chisel Brothers when she was a single mom who considered herself lucky to be pulling in a couple hundred bucks a week.
She tackled Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working” her way and then emulated the original, her ample presence recalling Howlin’ Wolf’s command of a stage, larger than life in every sense, singing as if her life depended on it. It was all big legs and elbows as she raced to the finish line with the Janis Joplin favorite “Piece of My Heat,” “Good Rockin’ Daddies,” and “Honest Woman” about finding husband who I assume was the congo player James who came over and hugged and kissed her like he meant it.
I always make a point of catching Thornetta’s performances if she happens to be representing Detroit in the Blues Foundation’s yearly International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Her band there usually is as brassy as she is, but the band she brought to Schenectady was as composed as she was over the top.
Keyboardist Phil Hale has been with her for years. He’s backed funk master George Clinton, Detroit R&B veteran Bettye LaVette, and Motown legend, Martha Reeves. He also fronts his own jazz band the Phillip J. Hale Trio.
But it was guitarist Carlton Washington who all but stole the show, reminding me of Luther Allison with his ability to define each of Thornetta’s originals in a clarion call that was exquisite, eclectic and self-defined. His credits include British bluesman Ian Siegel and Larry McCray. His 2008 Berklee Music biography illustrates his eclecticism listing his favorite albums as Guy Clark’s Old No. 1, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, James Cotton’s Take Me Back, Howlin’ Wolf’s Moanin’ in the Moonlight, and Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
Bass player Joseph Veloz was a standout in the band’s lead-in number on slap bass. Curtis Sumter propelled the arrangements on drums.
Tas Cru and his Band of Tortured Souls along with Albert Cummings are the two acts that have emerged from the local Northeast Blues Society to become successful national acts. As Thornetta’s opening act, Tas Cru did us proud at Music Haven. Self-assured and impressive in his command of electric guitar on originals like “Memphis Song,” he demonstrated that his success is well deserved and the result of his road warrior succession of endless dates on the road.