Had it with the heat wave yet? Sick of sweating it out in the sweltering sun? Well, don't go blaming Mother Nature, global warming or the weather man. It's all Blue Chicago's fault. The record label's 13-track compilation, "Red Hot Mamas," is far from being bad luck for the listener, though. Blues has, by and large, been a man's domain, with women simmering on the back burner most of the time, unrecognized and unappreciated. Enthusiasts will know names such as Koko Taylor, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Etta James. Aficionados may even be familiar with the lesser-known Edith Wilson or Victoria Spivey. And the modern-day acoustic blues trio, Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women, has been making waves for some years. But all in all, men have stolen the stage: just look at B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Howlin' Wolf. "Red Hot Mamas" aims to change that.
The CD, a compilation of cool Chicago blueswomen who perform at the Blue Chicago club, features almost an hour of newly recorded songs, all of them red hot, and all of them sung from a woman's perspective. "Sweet Home Chicago," the first track, sets the mood, opening with the sparse, gritty sounds of a subdued acoustic slide guitar. The tempo is slow as Karen Carroll softly moans out the vocals. The effect transports the listener back to the early days of blues recording. But don't get too settled: After a few bars and a short pause, drums pound, the guitar gets electrified, the tempo leaps, and Carroll belts out a blistering, "Come on/baby do you want to go back to that same old place/sweet home Chicago." The transition neatly shows times have changed, and it puts the focus on the women of Chicago blues.
Throughout this compilation the tables are turned on men: With songs such as Liz Mandville Greeson's "20% Alcohol" berating a man over his fondness of the drink, Bonnie Lee's saucy "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On," and Lynne Jordan's "Mama (He Treats Your Daughter Mean)" there's no doubt about the focus of this work. Later in the CD, Jordan pays tribute to Janis Joplin, a woman who helped pave the way for many other female artists, with a soulful, reflective cover of "One Good Man." And although a majority of the songs performed on "Red Hot Mamas" were written by men, the women show they could very well have been penned by either sex. Peaches Staten illustrates that handily when she puts her own spin on an old Carl Perkins tune, "Honey Don't," and shows that when it comes to infidelity and love, the door swings both ways.
To wrap things up neatly, the disc ends with Carroll singing her own tune, "Blue Chicago Blue." The move sandwiches the unique performances in the compilation between two slices of originality, and the message is apparent: Sit up and listen, because the women of Chicago are taking their rightful place in the blues world. It's a welcome turn of events.
To order Red Hot Mamas by mail:
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Chicago, IL 60610
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Phone: 312-661-1003 (in Chicago)
This review is copyright © 1999 by Patrick O'Donnell, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.