Unremarkably Exotic

SAFFIRE THE UPPITY BLUES WOMEN, who play the Blue Cafe Friday night, occupy a unique niche in the contemporary-blues scene. They come from a nearly moribund folk blues tradition whose standard-bearers included Leadbelly, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Elizabeth Cotton, Josh White, and a very young Bob Dylan. The music is strictly acoustic, and the songs—some of them structured as old-fashioned sing-alongs—tend to tell stories, sometimes politicized, rather than fixating on the usual suspects (booze, bumming out and broken hearts). Saffire put their own modern, post-feminist spin on the folk blues tradition. Songs about lowdown-dirty-dog penis-bearers, the pleasures of cunnilingus, the agonies of menopause and other such vaginal vagaries permeate their albums, all presented with as much humor as outrage.

That aesthetic continues on their seventh and latest release, Ain't Gonna Hush; the title track is a pissed-off, belated answer to Big Joe Turner's 50-some-odd-year-old shut-yo'-mouth-woman standard, "Honey Hush." Elsewhere, Saffire seems to have mellowed, proffering several enthusiastic ditties about men who are Wonderful Lays—still gyno-centric but a bit less PMS-ish than they used to be. Throughout, the music is warm, soulful and pleasant, even dignified—this is end-of-the-day, campfire and front-porch music, even if the subject matter is a mite unconventional.

My fave Saffire is Ann Rabson, who plays her piano with all the wise authority of Jimmy Yancey and sings in an unpretentious, enunciated method rare in the blues (she was, after all, a computer programmer before becoming an Uppity Blues Woman). She's joined by guitarist/vocalist Gaye Adegbalola, who is probably the trio's best songwriter; her "Blues for Sharon Bottoms" updates the time-honored "Stagger Lee" theme as an epic child-custody battle. Lastly, we have string mensch Andra Faye, whose fine work on upright bass, mandolin and fiddle spices up the proceedings quite nicely, even though her wan vocals can be grating.

The strangest thing about Saffire is their image—the group's appearance is as awkward as their handle. These ladies don't play the show-biz dress-up game, opting for plain, bland attire that makes them appear every bit the middle-class, middle-aged mommies—or even grandmommies—they are. Saffire look more like they want to bake you cookies than sing you the blues; this lack of ostentation is so remarkable as to actually be exotic.

It took me four days—some admittedly excruciating—but I actually listened to every note of The Golden Road (1965-1973), Rhino Records' new 12-disc boxed set of the essential GRATEFUL DEAD. I came away with a renewed admiration for America's Favorite Hippies, not because I discovered any new musical revelations in yet another 25-minute space-out on "Alligator," but because the Dead's studio legacy is one of the most remarkable in all of rock & roll. I hadn't checked out this stuff in many years and was struck by how fresh it still sounds. The group's self-titled debut from 1967 is proto-punk—amphetamine-paced, frenetic blasts of raw, youthful energy and hornet-sting guitar lines the likes of which were never produced by the group again. Their second effort, Anthem of the Sun, may be the most ambitious album release of that era, around the time the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper(1967), the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (1966) and dozens of other landmark efforts were produced. By mixing live and studio recordings at variable tape speeds, the Dead created a realistic approximation of the psychedelic experience set to wax. It doesn't always work as music, but the soundscape is by turns joyous and terrifying—a noble experiment of cinematic proportions. On 1969's Live Dead, the group actually achieved its goal of carrying the Coltrane torch on a musical journey that never loses steam or inspiration. The amazing epic "Dark Star" is perhaps the only concert opus that actually lives up to the Deadheads' sense of Grateful Dead music as spiritual ceremony. Best of all, though, is 1970's American Beauty, an achingly gorgeous acoustic roots album that improbably blends traditional, blue-collar country seamlessly with the hippie ethos—and does so without a single Jerry Garcia guitar solo along the way.

Throughout all 12 discs, the Grateful Dead never sound like anyone but themselves; they are earnest even in their most obvious failures—moments that are legion and occur mostly in the monotonous live jams, no matter what the robotic, ganja-addled faithful would have you believe.

Saffire the Uppity Blues Women perform at the Blue Cafe, 210 The Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. Sat., 10 p.m. $10.


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