Bessie Smith Empress Of The Blues Tribute At The Cabot

In a wonderful coincidence of timing, The Cabot, in Beverly, Ma. celebrated and honored the great and legendary blues vocalist icon, The Empress of the Blues—Bessie Smith -at the very same time the beautiful newly renovated 1920’s theater venue is turning 100 years old with this fund-raising kick-off event. Smith was performing in the 1920’s, establishing a singing career with her distinctive passionate indomitable voice and soulful takes on blues songs. She was to influence all major blues vocalists and songwriters of this genre, including Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Nina Simone and Queen Latifah, who played Smith in a 2015 HBO biopic. Along with Louis Armstrong, Smith became one of the highest paid entertainers of her era. Fittingly, this unique gala event, which benefits The Cabot’s efforts to complete years of renovations by its 100th birthday in 2020, featured an outstanding and eclectic mix of musicians, coming from blues, folk, R&B and jazz. Hosted by Philip Martin (WGBH News) and Renee Graham (The Boston Globe, WBUR FM), the evening was again, an inspiration and tour de force of arrangement, performance and stage management to get all these acts, with their individual styles, sharing the same stage. Hats off to the extraordinary efforts and coordination by J. Casey Soward (executive director) and Sue Auclair (director of marketing and communication & business development).

A sold out event was delivered Tuesday evening with grace and style by a diverse group of musicians including Paula Cole, who curated the show as artistic director. Cole, who won best new artist Grammy Award in 1998, has just released her latest album, Ballads (2018, 675 Records), a collection of Great American Songbook covers. Gifted, with a soaring and powerful voice that offered a nuance of caress, she broke into full vamp with her red 1920’s style hat and long black evening dress, belting out Smith’s naughtiest song ” Kitchen Man.”

The evening opening act introduced the alt-folk contemporary band Western Den, an appropriate chance taken by The Cabot to show a current take on Smith’s “Devil’s Gonna Get You.” The lead female vocalist Deni Hlavinka delivered a sultry come-on voice, accompanied by minimalist electric violin and fuzz-tinged electric guitar by Chris West, delivered a melancholy refrain.

MeShell NdegeOcello took the stage with a recognition of applause, just releasing Ventriloquism (2018, Naïve) and a 10-time Grammy nominee. A multi-instrumentalist rapper playing her signature bass tone, gave a quieter vocal rendition to “If You Don’t I Know Who Will.” With lines like” “Squeeze me until I get my thrill, Love me until I get my fill,” Smith’s un- apologetic refrain was carried off in a sexy whisper with a driving baseline.

Berklee faculty member and acclaimed Boston-born jazz drummer, composer and mentor Terri Lyne Carrington needed no introduction. A veteran, starting out at 12 playing with Stan Getz and other company of jazz stature, 3-time Grammy award winning jazz drummer, professor at Berklee College of Music (and scholarship alumnus) and mentor to many rising jazz musicians. Carrington’s version of Smith’s signature number, “St. Louis Blues,” added a jazzed-up, funky Herbie Hancock/Stevie Wonder-like sound that changed the tempo of the evening, delivering also a super-funky fuzz guitar solo by Chris Bruce, and some wonderful flourishes on drum by Carrington.

Revolutionizing contemporary folk music, vocalist Dom Flemons, co-founder of the African roots-based Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Grammy-nominee for just released Black Cowboys (2018, AAL Recordings), with banjo dexterity extraordinaire, gave a true twang and twist to the evening. His version of “They’ll Be a Hot Time in the City Tonight” simply cooked, with fast banjo strumming and perfect vocal rasping range, as Woody Guthrie’s spirit and Bessie Smith’s came together for a moment on stage.

Shemekia Copland, with recently released America’s Child making it to number 3 on Billboard’s Top Blues Albums, was the truest to the style of belting-out the blues, Bessie Smith’s way. Her grounding in the tradition of blues singing started early as a child on stage at 16 with her legendary father Texas blues guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland. Taking-on Smith’s “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” Copland made it her own with the powerhouse voice necessary to easily convince anyone listening to the lyrics that night, that she meant it.

The ferocious guitarist and songwriter Doyle Bramhall II, coming off a new album, “Shades” (2018, Provogue) that features guest appearances by Eric Clapton and a duet with Norah Jones, brought an un-canny Dylan-like look for the evening with scraggly beard, wide rim cowboy hat and acoustic guitar, and singing with a passionate moan. Voicing conviction with a heart-rendered style, Bramhall slowed-down the tempo bringing redemption to Smith’s “Trouble in Mind.”

From a different musical direction, bringing a more soulful and R&B sound to the evening, Grammy nominee Nona Hendrix sang the much covered “Nobody Knows You When Your Down and Out.” Hendrix has marched in her own career direction, as a solo vocalist performer and part of girl-band Labelle in the 70’s that had a cult following in England, politically active and genre- hopping from collaboration with the Talking Heads to New Age to singing “Sun City,” with Bruce Springsteen and Bono on the Artists United Against Apartheid. Hendrix carried her own phrasing and emphasis to the forlorn sorrowful words of “Nobody Knows You When Your Down and Out.” More poignant knowing the “crash and burn” of artists in the entertainment world. Bessie Smith would have been right there, nodding her head. Hendrix also then delivered a shattering version of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” with a haunting, crying remorse to her voice that was accompanied by discordant screeching of saxophone. A fitting remembrance of the lynching of black men in the south during the same time period that Bessie Smith was touring and singing the blues.

Valerie Simpson, famous partner and wife of the song-writing team with Nicholas Ashford, singing both gospel, pop and R&B, and inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, took the stage for the final tribute song, “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair.” Simpson, at piano and then up in front of the audience, owned this song with soaring emphasis, telling the lyrics, “Judge hear my plea, don’t want no sympathy” as she became this very wronged woman personified.

A group finale of a traditional gospel song, “Walk With Me, Lord” closed the evening tribute. As Smith’s influence lived on in all personal performances and renditions of this special evening, it was also an ever important reminder of the critical need to continue supporting and ensuring the legacy of venues like the The Cabot. As a female African American performer in the 1920’s, to sell 800,000 copies of her first recording, “Down Hearted Blues” is incredible and inspiring. “She was the Beyoncé of her day,” said Sue Auclair, marketing and communications director for The Cabot.

The 1920’s era of The Cabot that originally opened as The Ware Theater was a contemporary of Bessie Smith’s career. As close as this beautiful theater was to the wrecking ball in 2014, J. Casey Seward, executive director of The Cabot points out, “We hope that events such as this will be an important part of the future, to educate and to entertain, and to leave audiences feeling forever changed by the power of their experiences at The Cabot.” Bessie Smith’s presence in spirit and soul was certainly felt this night, to push and carry that mission forward.

Photo credit Eric Antoniou