A Tribute to the Blues Mamas

(Judith Wright Centre)


Performers: Margret RoadKnight and Lil’ Fi, accompanied by Mary-Jane Carpenter and Kelly Green

Professional production

“Age cannot wither them, nor custom stale their infinite variety.”

Move over, Cleopatra, for these Wild Women could show you a trick or two – and by Wild Women I don’t just mean the indefatigable and never-aging Margret RoadKnight, but the real old troupers whose early 20th century gutsy talent inspired this knock-‘em-dead show, the real mothers of the blues, people like Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Ma Rainey, Clara Smith, Odetta and Vera Hall, one of the greatest of all American folk artists.

Nobody is underestimating the appeal of later queens of the blues, like Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, but because these earlier mamas are not as well known, it’s a real treat for any blues enthusiasts to hear them revived, and to be introduced to some of their songs for the first time, especially when they’re interpreted by such powerful throaty voices as RoadKnight’s and the dynamic Lil’ Fi’s.

Remember Sweet solitary blues, Coffee-flavoured kisses and the influential anti-lynching song made famous by Billie Holliday and later Nina Simone, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees? All these are in this concert, as well as many others less well-known, and they’re interspersed with light-hearted but informative commentary, such as the fact that Hound Dog was originally a Big Mama Thornton song that Elvis Presley later made his own.

There were lots of Bawdy Blues numbers, too, including Sophie Tucker’s great hit Won’t you do what you did last night? and Lil’ Fi’s own number, Celebrate my curves, which had the older audience, who were definitely not anorexic, on their feet clapping as she celebrated bellies and butts and boobs.

Lil’ Fi is a wonderful singer with a great range, and she’s as out-there as anyone could wish. One of the most original performers on the contemporary roots music festival scene, she is on record as saying that you don’t need a soft flouncy voice if you have something interesting to say. She’s right on both counts – her tough amazingly elastic larynx belts out songs, some of them her own, that neither lull you into a sense of security nor encourage you to indulge in self-pity. “I’m afraid of no man, and very few women,” she sings, recalling her own mother’s philosophy, and both she and RoadKnight, along with the Minneapolis groups the WildKats, know that wild women don’t get the blues. (It was just a pity that there wasn’t room for that other great song from the WildKats, Big butts are comin’ back .)

Unlike Lil’ Fi, RoadKnight doesn’t write her own songs, but self-mockingly boasts that she shook the hand of the person who wrote the first song Bessie Smith ever recorded (“which shows how old I am,” she quipped to the delighted audience), and Robyn Archer once wrote a song for her which she didn’t get around to recording until long after Archer sang it herself at a concert. RoadKnight has her own style, perhaps more folk than raunchy blues, and the show worked better when the two women sang individually rather than in tandem. They confessed to being under-rehearsed, too, as Lil’ Fi now lives in Melbourne rather than in her original base of Queensland, and the lack of preparation led to some longueurs in the repartee. But they are both good enough entertainers to be able to overcome this slight disadvantage and the audience, mostly long-time fans of them, let them get away with it. Perhaps the fact that the fans were older than usual led to an uncritical acceptance of the minor faults in the show, especially as the two voices are as great as ever.

Due credit must be (and was) given to the keyboard players as well, Mary Jane Carpenter for Margret RoadKnight and Kelly Green for Lil’ Fi. I hesitate to call them accompanists, for both women are fine jazz musicians in their own right, and their solo spots, especially in the final encore, had the crowd roaring their appreciation.

The Judy, as this sparky live arts complex in Brunswick Street is popularly known, perhaps wasn’t the best venue for this kind of cabaret – there was only room for a few tables at the front, and the rest of us had to sit stiffly in the tiered seats, which had something of a distancing effect. But it was a great night out, and not just for greying first-wave feminists. There were as many men as women in the audience, and my only worry is that there doesn’t seem to be a young audience for blues and jazz. Does this mean that the genre will dwindle so that it becomes an esoteric fringe interest in a generation or so? I hope not, because this is soul-wrenching music, no matter how old you are, and Margret RoadKnight and Lil’ Fi are two of Australia’s best proponents of the form.

Played 1 and 2 December 2006 at 7.30pm

Duration : 2 ½ hours including interval

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— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 30th November 2006)