For about seventy-five minutes last night, Ida Blue showed great passionate artistry once again. The occasion was her evening of blues — riotous, carnal, spiritual, hushed — performed at Joe’s Pub:
and here’s Ben Guthrie’s photograph of the Blues Debut as it was actually happening:
Usually, when I attend a music event that I plan to write about, I make notes. You may have seen me writing: song titles, distinctive things that happened during a particular performance, my own critical shorthand of checks and question marks, of YES, NO, and WOW.
My notes from last night are a delighted mess, because I was having such a wildly good time that the idea of leaning forward attentively to catch when Ida identified the song title and the famous blues performer it was associated with soon became an idea whose time had not come. Early on in the evening, I gave up the idea of being the careful archivist. Instead I chose to write down phrases that struck my fancy — from the lyrics and from Ida’s interchanges with her audience.
I can tell you this: the exuberant young woman — The Lady in Red — who took the stage and told us all that she was sweating (out of emotional enthusiasm, for it wasn’t necessarily warm in Joe’s Pub) won us over time after time. As did her band: a glorious quintet, the likes of which I’d never seen together: Kevin Dorn, drums; John Gill, National guitar; Dan Block, bass clarinet / baritone saxophone; Jay Rattman, bass saxophone; Evan Arntzen, clarinet / tenor saxophone. That band rocked. And it wasn’t a matter of volume or bar-walking. Rather, each of the musicians showed the finest subtlety — as soloist, and even more as an essential part of an ensemble, organically shape-shifting as the mood struck them. So the saxophones hummed behind Ida or a guitar solo, or they took solos, or there were gloriously happy dialogues between two and three, phrases traded — in the best New Orleans / Memphis / New York City traditions, traditions being created on the spot in Joe’s Pub.
For her part, Ida was having a wonderful time and shared her joys with us. No matter what she was singing — songs associated with Memphis Minnie, Robert Johnson, Sister Wynona Carr, Victoria Spivey — her delight came through even when the lyrics were grim. (That’s what I think of as the Basie paradox: “Look! I’m having such a good time playing these sad, dark blues! I can’t believe how good this misery makes me feel!”)
Ida’s voice was entirely at her command, and her improvisatory courage utterly commanded the audience. She sang lyrics with the force of a cornet; growled and moaned, even offering a cantorial cadenza. Sometimes she sounded on the edge of tears; sometimes she boldly told us something naughty with a great wink. Some lines, although the words weren’t necessarily funny in themselves, became small comedies; other times, she resorted to her own stutter-phrasing, repeating a word or a syllable five or six times for emphasis (as if Kevin was hitting the snare with pistol-shot force).
And, as always, she was in motion. Hands held high above her head; dancing as wildly as she could on the small stage; ruffling her hair violently; grinning, laughing, having herself a fine time. She looked out into the audience, saying with great pleasure, “I KNOW you! I KNOW you too!” She wished her friend Sunny (of Sunny’s Bar in Brooklyn) a happy eighty-first birthday, and asked us all to raise our glasses. We could refuse her nothing, and we followed suit. She kicked off each song at a particularly groovy tempo, and although the repertoire was primarily twelve-bar blues, one song did not feel like its predecessor.
Although the mood was often lovelorn, Ida performed a few blues hymns — I’M A PILGRIM TRAVELER (which has “I’ll make it if He holds my hand” as a particularly moving affirmation). And when she sang “It keeps me singing in my soul,” I felt as if she’d made 425 Lafayette Street into a pop-up revival meeting.
To give you a flavor of the evening, here are a few phrases from assorted lyrics:
I got those itty-bitty legs!
When you see me comin’, pull down your window blind.
Some cold rainy day.
Lord have mercy on me.
I took his last nickel.
My man’s done evil, and I’ve done evil too.
Buy me a shotgun.
I’m going to shoot my pistol.
Where did you stay last night?
I could make a case that all human experience could be encapsulated in those words — and others — that Ida delivered with such fervent honesty last night.
After the show, when photographer Ben Guthrie and I were standing outside the Public Theater, I said to Ben — fully aware that it was both the truth and a terrible cliche, “When PBS comes around, if we’re still here, we’ll be able to say, ‘We saw her when . . . ‘”
Some ecstatic evening, it was.
May your happiness increase!