Vendetta Cream “sounds like it’s a dessert … a wicked dessert. So that’s one reason I like it,” confides Vendetta herself (a.k.a. Kelly Barrow) with a mischievous smile.
Her alter ego’s stage name and sultry persona is “like a facet of my personality that’s kind of animated, or something,” says Barrow.
The torch singer says she launched her jazz/swing trio, the Nines (Aaron Price, keyboards and guitar; Mike Holstein, bass; Bill Smith, drums), partly, as a forum for unveiling big-band-era songs in her repertoire that aren’t compatible with the rollicking mood swings of her other band — the high-combustion, rock ‘n’ roll riot Luvsix. “But I mostly did it because it’s a lot more fun than waitressing, and a lot less sketchy than dancing,” she concedes. “I just thought it would be a really fun way to support myself.
“I’ve been singing in rock bands pretty much — Luvsix, and all that — for about seven years,” she explains, “so it’s just been real fun to interpret these songs theatrically. I have so much more room with [Vendetta Cream] to do that sort of thing. … It’s really fun, compared to everything I’ve been doing so far, to have the vocals so up-front.”
Barrow has no problem with being in the limelight. After all, this is a woman who once said her goal in life was to have her likeness emblazoned on the nose of a B-52 bomber, Betty Grable style. Singing with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other, decked out in slinky ’40s attire, she purrs into the microphone and twirls the atmosphere of the room around her finger, like a long string of pearls. Let’s just say she could make a maraschino cherry blush with a bat of her eyelashes.
And though Vendetta Cream might seem like a creampuff gig, the boys in the band say it’s one of the most challenging experiences a musician could face. “It sounds like pretty easy music,” admits Price. “But if you see the show and the theatrical aspects that it has, [you’ll realize] that the music might be easy, but the performance wears you out.
“Part of the challenge is adapting a big-band arrangement for a trio,” he continues. “It’s like a distillation process. You take what’s important from that arrangement and try to capture it.”
Nuances of attitude in the timing and dynamics are what make swing music swing.
“The music can add a lot of atmosphere,” says Price. “I like to interpret the lyrics and set the mood. I illustrate the lyrics musically; we all do.”
Drummer Bill Smith adds, “You have to put the singer so much in front of everything else. We have to feel [what] she’s feeling, at that moment.”
“All our considerations, musically, really come down to [Barrow],” agrees Price. “A lot of our songs rely on cues from words that she’s singing — not necessarily notes, but verbal cues. … When she gets to the word, we take the [cue]. It can happen at any time; she just decides.”
The band recognizes that the audience has everything to do with the energy behind a performance, and Barrow believes Vendetta Cream has to be selective about where they perform.
“I really want to play in places [where] the atmosphere’s convincing,” she relates, “where the ambiance is right. And I really want to play in smaller places, so it will be more of an intimate thing.”
Tressa’s — that seductive little jazz-and-blues club whose owners (bless their hearts!) revived the dying art of lustfully good lighting — flatters Vendetta Cream with an elegant sufficiency of ’90s swank.
Barrow, herself the mother of two lovely children, says she gets a kick out of playing for grown-ups.
“It’s been real fun for me, doing this gig at Tressa’s for, like, adults,” she says. “I can be more subtle … and it’s really effective. It’s just kind of a challenge to play somewhere that supposedly [attracts] a more-sophisticated, older crowd or whatever. I try to be classy enough with it that grown-ups will take me seriously enough to listen.
“I don’t know, really, anything about jazz,” she admits. “I’ve just been kind of faking it. So I was nervous about whether or not I [would be able to] pull it off. … Doing all the wacky stuff with Luvsix really broke me in, I think, and made it easier for me to … work the theatrics and all.”
Barrow realizes that Vendetta Cream’s flirtatiously confident sexuality might frighten the bejesus out of some folks, but she hopes audiences will see the humorous side of her stage antics, too.
“A sense of humor is really essential,” she observes. “A lot of the theatrics, like wigs and all that stuff, is so absurd. I mean, just [the fact] that I’m up there with a wig on is … absurd enough that I don’t think I can be taken so seriously that people should feel intimidated by [my stage persona].
“I’m aware of how what I do affects how people feel, and if I feel comfortable, they [should] too,” she continues. “I want to inspire people to feel liberated with themselves. There [aren’t] very many women [in the Asheville music scene] doing anything that’s very outspoken. I really want to do it in a way that’s not threatening … but more just inspiring.”
Not only does Barrow want to consciously connect with her audiences, she wants to help bring disparate Asheville communities together through music.
“One of the best experiences I’ve had in the past year was seeing [the African-American band] Information Network play at Vincent’s Ear,” she remembers. “Two-thirds of the crowd was black, and then a third [was white], and everybody was dancing together and having a really good time. I’ve really been wanting to get Luvsix to play with Information Network, just for that reason — to try to bridge the gap.”