I loved the way they took the stage. Silently, four white men in suits, one carrying a woman‘s high-heeled shoes, which he placed in front of the absent singer’s microphone — a little offering to the Goddess. Then guitarist Byl Carruthers strummed a series of slow jazz chords, keyboardist Chris Rhyne added a low, whistling inquiry on the Hammond, and the audience at the Mint fell silent. From behind a thick velvet curtain, a black woman known only as ”Roach“ waltzed out onto the stage. Taking hold of the microphone, she began to sing a melancholy blues of love‘s departure:
”It’s hard to describe how it feels at firstFrom a faint suggestion to a bitter thirst . . .“
It was a magical moment. I knew nothing about the band called Cafe R&B as I listened to that opening song (”I‘m Free“), but already I was hooked. What I liked about the band was its air of seasoned, slightly extralegal professionalism. The four men onstage didn’t look as if they were out to have fun; they looked as if they were out to do something to you. Their relationship to the audience seemed to consist purely of mastering it, of bending it to their will. But in front of them stood a woman with her own ideas. ”She‘s got a really big voice,“ someone had said of the singer just before the band came on, and she certainly did. Dressed in a green sleeveless dress of 1940s vintage, the skirt of which she kept pulling as if plucking out some of the ”Tall Grass“ she sings about in one of her best songs, Roach dominated the stage. For the next hour she would hold the audience at the Mint enthralled as few performers are able to do. While the band played a driving, hard-edged rhythm & blues behind her, Roach writhed and twirled and danced as if possessed. So much so, in fact, that there were times when you worried for her safety. (That spare set of high heels was there because she wears out two pairs of shoes in an hour.) On harder-rocking numbers like ”Tall Grass,“ ”I Just Wanna Make Love to You“ and a ferocious rendition of Howlin’ Wolf‘s ”Smokestack Lightning,“ Roach literally drove herself into a frenzy until she was writhing about on the stage like a priestess in a voodoo ceremony. In the meantime, the band played music so tight and sharp it almost seemed sadistic.
It was only some time after the concert, in conversation with Carruthers, that I learned that Roach had actually been holding back during the show, that she had only partly been her normal vigorous self. The reason? She and Carruthers (her husband) had just discovered that she was two months pregnant. As a result, Roach had decided to ease up a tad. Otherwise, Carruthers emphasized, Roach would have been doing the splits on my table.
Cafe R&B plays a few cover songs, but most of the material is written by Carruthers, an intense, bearded fellow whose staccato guitar licks are one of the highlights of the show. (The other three band members — Rhyne on keyboards, Ken Dooley on bass and Steve Klong on drums — are equally superb.) The music Carruthers writes is inspired by the postwar electric blues of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, but it‘s filtered through the sensibility of someone whose first brush with the blues came via white men with an English accent. ”I saw the Stones at the Forum in 1969 with B.B. King and Ike and Tina Turner,“ Carruthers says, ”and when I was presented with British Invasion blues side by side with black American blues, I didn’t see the similarity at all!“
Roach and Carruthers have been married for 13 years. This is something that tends to strike women in the audience as obvious, although men rarely pick up on it. The two met in the 1980s, when Carruthers played bass for Roach and the White Boys, the rootsy, somewhat new-wave-ish rock band Roach had at the time. When the band broke up, Roach and Carruthers rarely saw each other for the next six years. They bumped into each other in a clothing store, and soon afterward they started going out, although by then both had put music aside. Carruthers got a job as a producer and director on Oprah, while Roach worked in the royalties department of PolyGram. It was only after seven years away from the music business that they started thinking about putting a band together again. And when they did, they decided to play the blues, not as purists but as musicians who‘d grown up with rock & roll and wanted to strip the music down to its bluesy core again in order to rediscover the essence that had inspired rock music in the first place.
”The blues for me was always my quiet, very private passion,“ Carruthers says of the days when he and Roach were playing new-wave and roots rock. ”Whenever musicians of any genre get together and jam, they always end up playing the blues. And people would say, ’Man, if I could do this all the time, I would,‘ as if there was some pervasive rule that stops you from doing that. And there is! It’s the record industry, the contracts . . .“
Or rather, the lack of them. Cafe R&B has been together for five years now, and the band has received the kind of accolades a lot of musicians would kill for. The one accolade it hasn‘t received, though, is a record contract. The band’s first CD, the highly praised Black & White, was put out with its own money, as was a live CD that‘s on sale at the concerts. Unlike most bands, though, Cafe R&B hasn’t actively campaigned for a record contract. It doesn‘t send out demos, it doesn’t have an agent, and the only way it advertises is by playing live. All of this is deliberate. ”If the suits got involved,“ says Roach, who‘s a disarmingly quiet presence offstage, ”there’d be all these guys telling me what to do, and I‘m not very good with that.“ When she and Carruthers left the music business at the end of the ’80s, she says, it was largely out of disgust at the way the lure of a contract destroyed all the spontaneity in the music.
”I‘ve never seen a record executive at any of our shows,“ Carruthers says. ”Of course you want that, and of course you secretly crave that, but on the other hand we just decided not to let that be the barometer. Once you send out demos and beg people to come to your show, all the elation you can feel after a performance can disappear if you find out that Mr. So-and-So didn’t show up. It ends up knocking the wind out of your sails.“
The band will be heading into the studios again this summer, but for the time being its music is something that most people experience live. And they‘re lucky to do so: Good as the CD is, it’s hard to imagine a studio recording capturing the magnificence of Cafe R&B in concert. On the night I saw them at the Mint, the band put on something more than just a good performance of its music. At times, Cafe R&B seemed to be putting on a piece of performance art as well, with race and gender as the subliminal subjects. As one person remarked to me after the show, it was a little strange to see a black woman thrashing around the floor while four white men in suits looked on, and strange it certainly was — but interesting, too. The music Cafe R&B plays is, after all, the blues, with all the history of black and white in America the form implies, and they don‘t play it lite. Not at all: They play it in a way that leaves you stunned.