Fast forward to 2009 and those themes are still very much alive in people’s hearts and music, but with slightly modern twists. Case in point: the Virginia-based all-women group Saffire – The Uppity Women Blues. This trio of women has been making music for 25 years and is currently on a farewell tour to both say goodbye to fans and promote their final album, “Havin’ the Last Word.” The tour will stop for one night at John Ascuaga’s Nugget on Saturday night.
“I have loved our journey,” Saffire singer and multi-instrument musician Andra Faye told the Sparks Tribune last week from Fredericksburg, Va. just hours before boarding a plane for the West Coast. “We’re all like sisters. We’re leaving with the utmost respect and love for each other.”
The band’s journey has been anything but smooth, Faye said. The band’s other two members, Ann Rabson and Gaye Adegbalola, both have battled cancer. Faye and her husband struggled through her fertility treatment and a miscarriage in an effort to have a baby.
“We’ve all had relationships,” Faye said, “we’ve all had loss.”
Those emotional experiences made their way to the last Saffire album. Faye wrote the song “Blue Lullaby” about her little family’s struggle through Faye’s fertility treatments and their heartache after a miscarriage.
The song “Bald Headed Blues” was written by Adegbalola based on her experiences with cancer; though she didn’t have to go through chemotherapy herself, she was able to talk to and relate to patients who did. Adegbalola’s song writing, Faye said, defines the band’s sound. Adegbalola beat cancer in the early 1990s, but it struck the band again when pianist Rabson had two forms of the disease last year. Adegbalola also drew from the experiences of a friend who had ovarian cancer.
Serious subjects are certainly not the only fodder for Saffire’s songs. Living up to the “uppity” part of their name, Saffire finds clever ways to sing about getting older on the outside while still feeling young inside. Take, for example, two songs featured on several of the group’s earlier albums: “Silver Beaver,” “There’s Lightning in These Thunder Thighs” and “Shake The Dew Off The Lily.”
Faye described the group’s live performances as “informal and unplanned.” They don’t go on stage with a set list, she said, and they will often take spontaneous requests from the audience. And, as the song titles suggest, Saffire’s live performances can get a little, well, uppity.
“You never know what might come out of any of our mouths on stage,” Faye said.
The sum of Saffire is greater than each of its musical parts, Faye said, and each of the members have very unique histories, according to the biographies on the band’s Web site, www.uppityblueswomen.com. Adegbalola was born, raised and still lives in Fredericksburg. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Boston University and a Masters of Education degree from Virginia State University. She was a biochemical researcher and a bacteriologist before becoming an educator with Fredericksburg Public Schools and was named Virginia State Teacher of the Year in 1982. She has been an activist all her life, participating in the civil rights movement and battling oppression as a black woman, a single parent, a lesbian and a poor person.
During her teaching career, Adegbalola moonlighted as a musician. As a founding member of Saffire, she became a full-time performer. She has toured nationally and internationally, and has won numerous awards including the prestigious Blues Music Award (formerly the W.C. Handy Award – the Grammy of the blues industry). As of February 2009, Adegbalola has 13 CDs in national distribution, including three on her own label, Hot Toddy Music. She has been nominated for a 2009 Blues Music Award in the Best Contemporary Female category. Adegbalola composes, sings and plays acoustic guitar, slide guitar and harmonica.
Rabson was born in New York City and raised in the Midwest into a musical family. She was first touched by the blues at age 4 when she heard Big Bill Broonzy on the radio.
“His music spoke to me; my world went from black-and-white to color,” Rabson said on the site.
Rabson still plays the first instrument she touched as a child — a guitar found in her father’s attic. At age 35, Rabson decided to learn the piano. Now honored as a member of the Boogie Woogie Hall of Fame, Rabson brings the historic blues, boogie-woogie and barrel house styles front and center. She has played piano with such artists as Jimmy Rogers and recorded with Pinetop Perkins and Ani De Franco. Rabson has participated in arts-in-education programs since the late 1990s and written articles on blues in the schools for Blues Revue magazine.
The third member of the group, Faye, joined Saffire 17 years ago after the departure of the original bassist and has been married for nine years to the group’s road manager, Chris Jones. In addition to contributing to the band’s music on fiddle, mandolin, acoustic bass, guitar and vocals, she contributed with songwriting on “Blue Lullaby” and “Walkin’ Home To You.” Faye said she is especially proud of “Walkin’ Home to You” because she had written the song for a solo project and was asked to rework it for the last Saffire album.
“This time I actually recrafted a song and it got accepted for the album,” Faye said. “I realized song-writing is a craft, not a miracle gift.”
Faye said it feels great to be touring again, even though the band members know it will be their last time doing so as a group. As with getting older and illnesses, the women of Saffire have managed to find the lighter side of the farewell, dubbing it their “AARP Medicare tour.” Faye said they have seen sadness in fans and have had to do a lot of explaining to their wide fan base as to why they’re calling it quits. Many fans are not just of the older generation, Faye said, but also their children who find humor and inspiration in their music.
“It’s good to be uppity when you’re young,” Faye said.
The Uppity Blues Women play Saturday night in the Celebrity Showroom of John Ascuaga’s Nugget at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22 and are available by calling (800) 648-1177 or 356-3300 or by visiting www.janugget.com.