What better place than Lincoln Center for Thornetta Davis, “Detroit’s Queen of the Blues,” to unveil her new horn section? “I just learned about her a year ago and had the great fortune to see her at B.B. King’s,” explained Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez, who programmed Davis’ impassioned, sweaty, unselfconsciously workmanlike performance this past evening.
Since the 80s, Davis’ career has taken a slow, steady upward tangent, to the point where she’s just as popular in Europe as she is in her hometown. Not bad for a woman who, as a single mom back in the 80s, considered herself lucky to be pulling in a couple hundred bucks a week singing with Motor City group the Chisel Brothers. Fronting her eight-piece band – guitar, five-string bass, keys, drums, congas, tenor sax and trumpet – she put a fresh spin on a popular old sound.
In just the first two minutes of the opening instrumental, the group swung their way from gritty Fender Rhodes funk into sunnier, trumpet-spiced soul ballad territory. Regal in a sparkly all-black outfit and a serious mane of an afro, brandishing a witchy peacock-feather fan, Davis took the stage with a cool but insistent take of I Gotta Sing the Blues, a pulsing vintage Tina Turner-style anthem. Guitarist Carlton Washington took a jaggedly tasty, clanking early-70s style solo before Davis drove the music upward, cutting loose with her vibrato.
Washington’s lingering chords against the steady thump of the congas lent some noir latin flavor to A Pretty Good Love, Davis reaching to the bottom of her formidable low register at the end. The band hit a no-nonsense vintage Chicago-style blues shuffle in That Don’t Appease Me, Washington’s purist riffage again matching Davis’ defiant delivery. Then his spare Smokey Robinson-like lines mingled with keyboardist Phil Hale’s spare gospel lines in the gorgeous vintage 60s-style soul ballad Am I Just a Shadow.
Hale’s scampering Rhodes added extra funk to When I’m Kissing My Love. “I wrote this song because this brother kept calling me, messing with my head,” Davis explained as the band launched into the slow, simmering blues ballad I’d Rather Be Alone. “That key in your hand don’t unlock my door,” she cautioned, building to a slow, impassioned peak along with the horns, Hale’s slinky, purist electric piano. and Washington’s shivery vibrato-toned lines. She brought it down at the end with a sly series of disses for a guy who’s too full of himself for his own good.
They got funky again with I Need a Whole Lotta Lovin to Satisfy Me – by this point, the dancefloor in front of the stage had filled up, kids on the Broadway side of the room, oldsters closer to the doors on Columbus Avenue. The the group ripped through the blues classic Further On Up the Road, Washington bobbing and weaving between the horns.
Washington saved the night’s most intense pyrotechnics for a long solo in the lush ballad after that. “We need prayer every time we can get it in, especially these days,” Davis mused, introducing an elegantly fervent version of the B.B. King classic Please Send Me Someone to Love. She shimmied and took a couple of leaps to kick off the swinging shuffle Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues. After a Memphis-tinged take of Honest Woman, the optimistically swaying title track from her latest album, she closed with I Believe, a simmering, slide guitar-driven roadhouse blues.
In an era where the blues has become a legacy style, like bluegrass and roots reggae – and a lot of bands play it like it’s an artifact in a museum – Davis and her band are a blast of fresh air.
One particularly enticing, upcoming free concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space just north of 62nd St. on Broadway is on May 31 at 7:30 PM with charismatic crooner Zeshan B “doing Memphis blues with a little Pakistani feel,” as Benitez put it. Get there early if you’re going.