Their first live recording confirms it: Saffire — the Uppity Blues Women get even more uppity when faced with a rowdy crowd.
Live & Uppity (Alligator, 1998) includes such odes to free living as “Cold Pizza and Warm Beer,” “Silver Beaver” and “You Can Have My Husband.”
After a decade of gender bending and baring, the middle-aged mamas have earned a loyal following for their swagger and schtick.
“You just have to know that whatever we’re saying, we’re saying with love,” claims Saffire multi-instrumentalist Andra Faye. “And whoever we’re mad at, everybody gets mad at everybody. If it were a man singing about a woman and dissing her, people are used to that. But if it’s a woman speaking, people go, ‘Oh, did she really say that? We were thinking it, but they said it.'”
Faye joined Saffire in 1992 and performs on upright Clevinger bass, mandolin and fiddle.
“Our sound has just evolved from playing so much with each other,” she says. “A big part of our sound is the piano, and of course the mandolin and other strings, but Ann’s piano certainly drives the band. It’s so strong and gives us a much fuller sound than we’d have if we played all stringed instruments all night long. I think that really defines us, and she certainly is fun to play with.
“We enjoy playing with each other,” she continues, “so the high point of the day is usually the music. And we have three really good singing voices. We all sound different. Our band is unique because we have three lead vocalists and can rotate vocals.”
Faye grew up in Indianapolis, and though she started playing violin at age 12, a career in music seemed like long odds. She prepared accordingly. “It was always a little dream, but I just never thought that it would happen,” she says. “I went to nursing school, because I knew that was always a portable job, you could always get a job. People are pretty much always sick, and I enjoyed being a nurse. It allowed me to access my calm side. I just really didn’t think that I’d be making a living playing music, because everywhere you look there are people who seemingly are better than you. But I dreamed about it, wanting to be on stage, and it happened.
“It’s pretty amazing when your dream comes true.”
Saffire guitarist/vocalist Gaye Adegbalola was raised in Fredericksburg, Va., and pianist/vocalist Ann Rabson moved to Virginia in the 1970s. Faye met the two at a blues workshop in West Virginia.
“I had been going [to the workshop] for a couple years,” remembers Faye. “I guess I was just pursuing it for my own love of the music. I figured I’d never do it for a living, but it still was my creative outlet. … That was my vacation, going to the blues camp and playing with little bands all the time. So I kept at it and always just figured I’d do it for fun.
“Then in 1987, Ann and Gaye both came to the camp, and we got to be musical friends immediately. We just stayed in touch, and when their bass player decided to leave, they gave me a call — even though I didn’t play bass. They said, ‘Ah, no problem, you’ll pick it up,'” she remembers with a laugh. “I played strings, a little guitar, a little mandolin, but I didn’t play bass. So for the first six months I was in the band I was learning bass at home. The main difference is that the bass is just more physically challenging. It’s a bigger instrument, you know. But it’s really fun. It’s a real grounding instrument to me. I don’t know. I really like that low, low moan, I guess.”
She also enjoys the challenge of weaving the mandolin and fiddle into Saffire’s blues.
“I guess I see my little niche in exposing a few more people to the possibility of blues fiddle and mandolin,” she says. “They were pretty prevalent before electric instruments got to the forefront. When blues was starting to be played out, they had jug bands and little string bands, and they had fiddles and mandolins. So you can learn to play any music on that instrument. A lot of people ask what the difference between violin and fiddle is. There are certainly better instruments that are more suited for a classical sound, but you could play either kind of music. It’s sort of an attitude, and I kind of like the fiddle attitude, I guess.”
Faye met blues mandolinist Yank Rochell in Indianapolis, and he encouraged her to stick with the instrument. “We got to be friends, and I was certainly inspired by him,” she says. “It’s a different sound, but to me it’s not an unusual sound for a blues band. I definitely see that as kind of a niche for me, because people are almost always surprised by the sound. That’s my little mission — to spread the mandolin.”
According to Faye, Saffire’s message is getting out just fine — and it’s not just women listening, either.
“It’s usually pretty well balanced,” claims Faye. “Whether that’s from women dragging their men along, we don’t know. We really do have a lot of guy fans who understand it, and a lot of times they’re excited because they’re the ones who turn their women on to us. It’s a good way to have a date. And it’s cool when a young person that’s maybe home from college brings a grandmother or their parents [to a show].
“A lot of times we get whole families at the show, so it’s nice we’re cross-generational. We’re excited that there are future uppity blues women,” she concludes.