By Michelle Gomes
What do you get when you put four incredibly talented women together (collectively comprising over two centuries of experience in music), add an award-winning vocalist/keyboard/sax player and a backup band of equal abilities and histories? The result is the Bay Area-based supergroup known as The Blues Broads.
The Blues Broads are vocalists Angela Strehli, Tracy Nelson, Annie Sampson, and Dorothy Morrison. They are joined, whenever possible, by Deanna Bogart, whose skill on keyboards, saxophone, and vocals makes her an “Honorary Broad.” The band features Petaluma native Gary Vogensen on guitar (Boz Scaggs, Etta James), Bay Area local Steve Ehrmann on bass (John Lee Hooker, Roy Rogers), S.F. Bay’s Paul Revelli on drums (Charlie Musselwhite, Bo Diddley), and the North Bay’s Mike Emerson on a second keyboard. Each of these nine fantastic players have had careers most musicians would die for, playing with legends from Charlie Musselwhite and B.B. King to Boz Scaggs, Sammy Hagar and even Simon & Garfunkel. This powerhouse of talent combines to become something even more than the sum of its parts.
The histories of The Blues Broads tell a story of the evolution of rock & roll, its roots in blues and gospel, weaving through San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury music scene, picking up bits and pieces in Austin, Chicago, Nashville, and many places in-between. Having recently been introduced to the band, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to their CD/DVD release party at Mill Valley’s Throckmorton Theatre on Sept. 20. What I got was easily one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. It was definitely the most fun I’ve had at a live show in… I don’t even know how long! If their stories aren’t enough to convince you to get to know them, check out the video clips below and let your ears make up your mind for you. Then head to a show near you! (Santa Rosa on 10/12 and San Francisco on 10/15 – details below!)
Don’t let the name fool you, though. These ladies don’t sing only the blues. They come from different backgrounds, each lending a bit of her own style and influences to the band. In a recent interview with Angela Strehli, I asked her about the group and their music.
“We obviously don’t do just blues,” she told me. “I–probably of the four people–do the most blues usually, but we all love all kinds of ‘roots music.’ Each of us has a different style of singing. We get to show off our choice of what we want to represent ourselves. But then we get to work with each and every one of the singers in different ways, backing each other up, and so forth. So it’s not just us singing together all the time, or just one person singing. It’s different combinations, and it makes it fun and exciting! We’re really sort of loose and, I think, really genuine on stage. It gets to people because we are having a great time!”
Angela continued her thoughts on the individuals who make up The Blues Broads: “Tracy Nelson had a really popular band here in the Bay Area during the ’60s called Mother Earth, but she’s done everything from folk to blues to rhythm & blues, and has had a long career in music. And she’s just an astounding vocalist!” Tracy recorded her first album in 1964, hiring Charlie Musselwhite to play harmonica. He took her to the South Side clubs of Chicago, introducing her to other iconic bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. In 1966, she moved to San Francisco, where she founded Mother Earth, sharing the stage with the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, and becoming one of the era’s greatest female vocalists. It was here that Tracy wrote her signature song, “Down So Low,” which has since been recorded by Etta James, Linda Ronstadt, and Cyndi Lauper, among others. After relocating to Nashville in the late ’60s, she received her first Grammy nomination for “After the Fire Is Gone,” a hit duet with Willie Nelson (no relation to Tracy, although he has said they just might be “the illegitimate children of Ozzie and Harriet”!).
“Annie Sampson was a long-time friend of my husband’s family,” said Angela. “She had the great rock & roll band, Stoneground,” whose members included Cory Lerios, Steve Price, and David Jenkins (who all went on to become Pablo Cruise). In the late ’60s, Annie was in the San Francisco stage production of the musical Hair, “so she brings those influences. She does a Bob Dylan song that gets standing ovations routinely. It just kills–you never can tell what we’re gonna come up with! So there’s Annie’s influence. Everybody’s really strong–I would consider myself the least strong of all of the vocals….” Annie has recorded with the likes of Elvin Bishop, Taj Mahal, Buddy Miles, Maria Muldaur, Eddie Money, and Country Joe McDonald. On stage, she has performed with local legends Bonnie Raitt, Journey, Boz Scaggs, Sammy Hagar and Jerry Garcia, among others.
“Dorothy just has the biggest voice, and the biggest personality,” Angela said. “She does a Tina Turner song, a Spinners song. We end our show with ‘Oh Happy Day,’ which Dorothy Morrison made famous across the world! [That song, recorded by Dorothy with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, became the all-time best-selling gospel recording.] She wrote the verse on what was a traditional song, at least the chorus was, and she never got credit for writing the only verses that there are; we are just thrilled for her to get that credit. She’s just an irresistible presence on stage, and all her songs are outstanding!” Dorothy has been a force in gospel since the late 1960s, and she is very prominent in East Bay church circles as “Sister Pastor” with her brother, Rev. Bill Combs, at their late father’s Green Pastures Church in North Richmond. She, her brother, and nephew Levi Seacar, Jr. (onetime Prince guitarist) recently formed a band that mixes gospel and secular material. She has also worked with Van Morrison, Boz Scaggs, and Rita Coolidge; and she’s heard on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” “We were just fooling around, doing an occasional gig at Ranch Nicasio,” added Angela, “but when Dorothy joined up, we just melded musically and personally, and we got a little more serious.”
As for Angela herself, she has quite a story, too. Born to a musical family in Lubbock, Texas, it wasn’t until she moved to Austin that her illustrious career in music began. She met up with legendary promoter Clifford Antone and became an instrumental part of making Antone’s Nightclub the blues mecca it is today. During her time at Antone’s, Angela started in the back office, booking acts, running the sound board, and doing whatever else was needed. She was mentored and encouraged to get out on stage by Muddy Waters and B.B. King, going on to support emerging artist Stevie Ray Vaughan, and helping him to find his own voice. Eventually she became one of Austin’s most highly regarded female vocalists and has been called the “First Lady of Texas Blues.” Antone’s, with the indispensable help of Angela herself, is undeniably a major reason that Austin, Texas, is considered “The Live Music Capitol of the World.” She has been spreading her roots and sharing her Texas influences with the Bay Area since the early ’90s, when she moved here with her husband Bob Brown (former manager of Huey Lewis & the News). Settling in the tiny village of Nicasio, they now own and operate historic Rancho Nicasio, a little musical oasis right in the center of Marin County.
And then there is Deanna Bogart… “She is an incredible artist in every way,” Angela said, “completely well-rounded–singing, playing, writing, arranging–all of that stuff. She has so much to offer! So whenever she wants to be with us and we can get her here, that’s it, she’s on! She can’t always join us, being based out of Baltimore. Of course, this run of gigs is very important, being our CD/DVD release and everything, so we are thrilled that Deanna can be with us. She’s another one who could just take over the stage at any given moment! It’s wonderful. We just enjoy each other so much; we’re just as entertained as everybody else!” In her own right, Deanna is an award-winning and multi-faceted bandleader, singer, songwriter, producer, pianist, and sax-player. She has developed her own sound, which she has dubbed “blusion”: a combination of boogie-woogie, contemporary blues, country, and jazz. She has played with Jimmy Buffett, The Moody Blues, Paul Reed Smith, B.B. King, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Buddy Guy, James Brown, and Ray Charles. She is an integral part of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue, along with with Tommy Castro and Magic Dick (founding member of the J. Geils Band).
“We do an a cappella gospel song, ‘Jesus, I’ll Never Forget,’ that was originally done by the Soul Stirrers,” said Angela, “and that’s one of our favorites. For the band to just drop out, and have [only] the vocals–I don’t know, it puts us in a different experience–it makes us have something to offer. We do have our own material in there, of course. That’s something we’re gonna be working on in the future…Annie has a great original song; Tracy and I do, too. So that’s our goal: to try to expand into contributing our own music, as well as covering things. It’s fun to cover things. People in the audience are comfortable when they hear something they are familiar with, so that’s fine for now. It’s a lot of fun for us. But everybody has killer material, and we just get a huge kick out of each other.”
When all five of these ladies get together, get ready for a rollicking good time! They cover some of the best songs from blues, gospel, country, and rock, from Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” to Mavis Staples‘ “Respect Yourself” and Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher.” They also perform their own original songs: Annie Sampson’s “Bring Me Your Love”; Tracy Nelson’s “Livin’ the Blues”; “Two Bit Texas Town” and “Blue Highway” by Angela Strehli and guitarist Gary Vogensen (who also lends his voice to Deanna Bogart’s song, “They Said it Wouldn’t Rain”). These ladies show the younger generation of musicians how it’s done!
Annie’s voice can fill a room all on its own, even without a microphone, as she did during their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Baby Blue,” highlighted by Deanna’s saxophone notes as they traded off riffs. Dorothy’s gospel roots shone through with her soaring voice and animated movements, recalling a great Southern Baptist church service, with the love and joy just too much to contain. As the evening wound to a close, Dorothy belted out the Spinners classic, “Mighty Love,” after which she said, “I have to talk for a minute to catch my breath…We’re Blues Broads, not teenagers!” For their final song, Tracy took over Deanna’s keyboard, giving us one more sample of the power and passion her voice possesses. “Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” the Sam & Dave hit, brought to a close the nearly two-hour feast of music, passion and humor that is The Blues Broads at their best!
And then there’s the whole “Broad” terminology. In some circles, it seems, the moniker has garnered a negative connotation, which is unfortunate. It’s really a great word, with a very cool original vibe! Just watch an old Frank Sinatra movie, and you’ll get the right idea… In the meantime, here’s the last bit of my conversation with Angela, including what she had to say on the term.
Angela: It doesn’t mean we do bawdy material. It means that we have experience; we know what we’re doing; we have a sense of humor about it; we’re confident… And because we’re confident, we’re just more playful. We’re not so serious about ourselves, you know… We’re not divas, we’re Broads! We’ve got it, and we know it, and we have fun presenting it, and we’re not too serious about ourselves.I mean, isn’t it better than “chicks”? It just sounds better to say “The Blues Broads”!
BAM: Broads are all good in my book, Angela!
Angela: Thank you! And congratulations that BAM is back in the game! That is so neat! That was something I learned about as soon as I got here… I was actually on a couple of Bammie Awards shows, one with Bonnie Raitt…what a great tradition!
BAM: Thank you, Angela. We look forward to seeing you very soon.
Fri., Oct. 12, 2012 – Last Day Saloon in Santa Rosa – tickets and info
Mon., Oct. 15, 2012 – Rrazz Room in San Francisco – tickets and info – ***this is their FIRST S.F. Show!***
Do yourself a favor, and go check them out!
Live at 142 Throckmorton Theater – extended play DVD sampler (13+ mins.)
- The Blues Broads official website
- Tracy Nelson official website
- Annie Sampson Biography
- Deanna Bogart official website
- Gary Vogensen official website
- Steve Ehrmann on Facebook
- Mike Emerson official website
- Paul Revelli MySpace
- Rancho Nicasio
1 Old Rancheria Road, Nicasio, CA 94946
- 142 Throckmorton Theatre
142 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley, CA 94941
- Antone’s Nightclub
213 West 5th Street, Austin, TX 78701