Concert Review: Misty Blues’ Homage to Odetta @ Caffe Lena, 11/26/2023
In an ever-smaller world seemingly consumed by environmental, political and military flames that threaten our very survival as a species, music is our eternal flame. Misty Blues’ homage to Odetta in the hallowed hall that is the Caffe Lena is a case study of that hopeful eternal flame lighting our way to salvation.
Gina Coleman is a black Williams College graduate leading and writing original material for a band of white musicians, any one of whom is good enough to front their own band in a style of music that obliterates the music industry’s arbitrary distinctions between folk, blues, rock, and jazz.
Yes, the times they are a changing, and in music at least they are for the better. In their homage to Odetta, Gina mentioned that the ’60s coffeehouse performer early on had a desire to become an opera singer. Growing up in the ’50s, Odetta had no chance of ever realizing that dream. In 1999 she said to me, “Marion Anderson, a gorgeous, magnificent voice, a black woman contralto was not invited to sing at the Metropolitan until almost when she retired. So, a little black girl growing up in this country gets the message.”
Even as a folksinger, Odetta was an anomaly who had to struggle for recognition. She recalled her performance at the 1963 march on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. “I was there, and I started singing. They had these huge towers with cameras from CBS, NBC and ABC, and they took their lunch break when I went on. I saw all the lights go out. Remember the New York Marathon when the young black African won the race? ABC, NBC, and CBS turned the camera off of him when he was crossing the finishing line. So, we’re not just talking about blues here. We’re talking about our whole lives being overlooked or unconsidered.”
Gina in concert posed the question of why a blues band would record a “folk” album “Tell Me Who You Are: A Live Tribute to Odetta” and its anticipated follow-up due out next year. I was there at the Café Yanna in Boston and the Club 47 in Harvard Square from 1962 to ’66 being mentored by Bill Nowlin who would go on the co-found Rounder Records with his Tufts University roommate Ken Irwin. In my mind at that time there was no line drawn between folk and blues other than color, and artists like Odetta, Buffy Ste. Marie, Tom Rush and the British Invasion bands were systematically wiping even that arbitrary distinction where it counted, at the cash register.
Misty Blues has created a contemporary showcase for Odetta’s music in a reconstructed Caffe Lena. Playing in front of the same brick wall that Odetta did more than two decades ago, Misty Blues took the Odetta’s songs originally presented in black and white and updated them in three-dimensional full color. Her six-piece band together 25 years is the bi-racial musical equivalent of the Stax-Volt studio band of the 1960s. Sitting in with Gina Sunday night was her son who she says is like a Swiss Army Knife in his ability as a “utility” performer substituting for the regular drummer or bass player and/or backup vocalist who can’t make that particular gig.
The memories that flooded my brain throughout this concert were as vivid as a slide show of my decades of enjoying all kinds of music.
The songs they performed include “When I Lay My Burden Down,” “Go Down Sunshine,” “Take This Hammer,” “Hit or Miss,” “Blues Everywhere I Go,” “Motherless Child,” “How Long Blues,” “Midnight Special,” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
The people who would destroy this world would do well to listen to Gina Coleman and Odetta. They are both visionaries.
Odetta from 1999: “You see, it’s not just the blues. The blues is an indication and a look into where we can spread out and see how it’s affecting every last one of us, but we don’t want to hear it. And we don’t want to hear that our government would be doing such things and letting such things happen, and they can spend billions of dollars to prop up another country and military where they are moving peasants and farmers off their farms in order so they can grow coca leaves or oil or whatever and they can’t find enough money in New York City over our schools to have all the toilets work, to have a school where kids are not having classes in locker rooms or toilets.
“We’re in trouble. We are in trouble, but you know, you can’t give it over to them. I think we just have to keep at it doing whatever we can do and touching whoever we can touch.”