“We like to go way back,” Catherine Russell told a standing-room only crowd at WAMC’s Linda Norris theater Saturday night.
She wasn’t kidding. She barely played songs beyond 1938. And that was just fine.
Her show was a reminder how much of our music comes from the blues. Some of it jumps, or swings, or glides on the melody of a slow ballad, but it’s all the blues. And you can hear today’s songs — from classic rock to current pop — within these pre-swing oldies.
She opened with an Alberta Hunter tune, “My Old Daddy’s Got a Brand New Way to Love,” a raggedy, stripped-away jug-band song that Russell sang with a jazz sensibility, which is how she interpreted most of her songs.
She approached the song like Pearl Bailey — whom she said she “loved” — but with a little more volume and aggressiveness.
She followed with “So Little Time, So Much to Do,” which she called the theme of her life, edging toward a primitive southern Dixie sound. Russell would shout through an occasional phrase here, pushing the room’s delicate ability to hold her volume, which it held, though she often buried the band.
“I’m definitely living in the past,” she told the room.
And then, she surprised the crowd with a Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter tune, “New Speedway Boogie,” calling the duo two of her favorite songwriters. She covered this song on her first album, “Cat.” Go figure.
She did a great understated job singing the song along with acoustic bassist Lee Hudson. Guitarist Matt Munisteri gently added some blues fills midway through.
The group backed Russell nicely. A drummer would have increased the level of excitement at the expense of intimacy.
Russell told the story of her father, Luis Russell, who won $3,000 in Panama’s lottery in 1919, when he moved his family to New Orleans. From there, his career led to leading Louis Armstrong’s orchestra. She dedicated Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans” to her father.
She played a juke-joint stomper about the dangers of pulling the whiskey off the shelf. Pianist Mark Shane made it jump more on his two-verse solo.
You expected her to scat sing a bit on Ella Fitzgerald’s “Oh Yes, Take Another Guess.” But she didn’t. She disappointingly kept it straight and didn’t venture to wander off at all, not once Saturday night.
She sang Sam Cooke’s soulful “Put Me Down Easy,” which she recorded on her first album.
Then came Willie Dixon’s bluesy “I Don’t Care Who Knows,” from her newest record, “Sentimental,” which came out last month.
She seemed to like best these shoutable blues tunes. But through the night, she returned to the early part of the century, like Pearly Bailey’s “I’m Lazy, That’s All.”
Russell has made a living as a sideline singer for some of the biggest names, from Madonna to Steely Dan. Left to her own devices, she’s chosen to honor Bessie Smith and the likes. That alone makes her show worthwhile.
Check her out Wednesday night when WAMC-FM broadcasts a recording of the show.
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Categories: Life and Arts