Vocalist Gwen Avery was raised in a tiny town outside Pittsburgh, where she spent many happy hours in her grandmother’s speakeasy, listening to the jukebox–or to whatever bluesman was passing through that night. She likes to invoke her childhood in her publicity material, portraying herself as a rough-hewn traditionalist, but her current style is actually an urbane, meticulously crafted blend of contemporary blues, light jazz, and pop. Despite some interesting tension between the genres she draws on, Avery’s music might sound a little sterile if it weren’t for her singing–her sensual voice has a flexible timbre, a wide range, and the heft of a saxophone, and she hits tough intervals spot-on. “Sugar Mama 2K,” an update of her song on the trailblazing 1977 Olivia Records anthology Lesbian Concentrate (and the opening tune on her new self-released CD, Sugar Mama), begins as a gentle, melancholy plea for intimacy, caressed by saxist Jules Broussard’s rippling meditations. But then the band kicks into a brassy vamp, Avery’s voice thickens into a salacious gurgle, and her lyrics become outright suggestive (“Gonna love you up and down and all around”). The breezy workout “You’ll Find Love” draws equally from modern soul blues and 70s jazz-funk fusion, creating an understated but propulsive dance groove. Her rendition of “The Thrill Is Gone” masterfully evokes the woundedness and bitter determination that suffused B.B. King’s hit 1970 version, qualities that have made the tune a blues perennial. And “Sad Song,” a bittersweet pop-jazz bauble given depth by her artful melisma, exemplifies her pointed but understated approach to gay and lesbian issues: a lyric like “We hide in the closets that we build” walks a fine line, reading both as a charged statement about the perils of being gay in a straight world and as a reflection on the universal phenomenon of self-defeating doubt. Sunday, July 1, 8 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Hopeton Stewart.