Bessie Smith, What Have You Wrought?
For the above question, you could also fill in the names Memphis Minnie, Sippie Wallace, or Ma Rainie. All of these blues women had two things in common: they were excellent singers, and were not afraid to throw a little curveball into their lyrics. (In hockey parlance, they’d be known as shit-disturbers—those who enjoyed causing a little mayhem on purpose.) Women and blues were at times as compatible as cake icing and mayonnaise—both were edible on their own, but don’t dare mix the two together. It seemed only the women who took risks by being risqué made it in blues circles. Fast forward to today’s blues; the only women who work the genre for a living are those who would rather play it straight, either strictly as vocalists, or by throwing some guitar playing into the mix (most notably, Susan Tedeschi). With the exception of veteran Bonnie Raitt, there really is no notable blues female who stands out today.
The closest exceptions to the rule are three ladies who call themselves Saffire—the Uppity Blues Women. Two of them have been with the band since its inception in 1990 (Ann Rabson, keyboards and vocals, and Gaye Adegbalola, guitar and vocals). In fact, Adegbalola played student to Rabson’s guitar teacher—that’s how they first hooked up. The current third member is multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Andra Faye (she replaced bassist Earlene Lewis in 1991 after the band’s second release, Hot Flash). From their self-titled debut in 1990 until now, the trio has a seven-album output (six studio, one live). And in Alligator Records’ continuing series of featuring their artist’s best works under the banner of Deluxe Edition, it’s Saffire’s turn.
Twenty songs give a strong impression of what Saffire’s all about. Look no further than the opening track, the band’s biggest hit and most acclaimed song, “Middle Aged Blues Boogie”. The “Boogie” in the title is somewhat misleading, since Rabson’s barrelhouse piano (her work is solid all throughout) is not conducive to boogieing. But the lyrics are pure sass, as Adegbalola sings about a woman’s midlife crisis, solved by a younger man (“I said that if he can get it up / He can get on down… / Forget about experience / Lord knows I need potential”).
Between covers and originals, the song titles should give you a hint of how things are with these ladies: “Bitch With a Bad Attitude”, “There’s Lightning in These Thunder Thighs”, “Tom Cat Blues”, “(No Need) Pissin’ on a Skunk”, and “Silver Beaver”. There’s no fear in what these ladies sing (“Lorena Bobbit will look like an angel / By the time I’m done with you”, from “Bitch…”), but it’s all done with a wink and a sly smile.
What Saffire—the Uppity Blues Women have done (and are still doing) is carrying on a tradition that says the best kind of blues isn’t necessarily the deadly serious kind. Somehow, fair or not, men can’t get away with being playful in their blues lyrics (hunt down Louisiana Red’s “Sweet Blood Call”, one of the scariest blues songs this reviewer has ever heard). Women may have lived through hard times, but with rare exceptions (Precious Bryant, for one), they can’t sing about them and have it believed. So to get by in the blues world, the women have to go a little lighthearted. (Again, there are exceptions.) And for lighthearted sass, there’s no one out there today who does it better than Saffire. Deluxe Edition is a fine comedy album cloaked in three blues dresses.