Friday, September 10, 2010

Cheryl Renee: Cincinnati Boogie-Woogie

The D.C. Blues Society’s Annual Festival has always had special meaning for me.
First of all, it’s obviously a blast to sit and listen to a full day of blues music for no money, save for what you spend on beer and hot dogs.
Second, I get nostalgic about the venue: the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in northwest D.C., where, as a child and teen-ager, I heard performances by Cannonball Adderly, Donny Hathaway, Earth, Wind and Fire, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, the Temptations, Return to Forever and others.
And third, it’s generally followed by a party where even more good music is played.
The 22nd Annual D.C. Blues Festival last Saturday was no different.
Warmed up by Big Boy Little Band of Zoo Bar fame, the festival was moved along by veteran singer/songwriter/guitarist Doug MacLeod and Houston blues and gospel singer Diunna Greenleaf to a blistering final act by blues-rock guitarist Bryan Lee and his Blues Power Band.
Along the way, the city of Cincinnati represented through the music of Keyboardist Cheryl Renee and her current compadres, the Them Bones band.
The group, which won third place in this year’s Memphis International Challenge, later showed up at the Silver Spring American Legion to headline the D.C. Blues Society after party. In between sets, BBP had a chance to talk to Cheryl Renee, during which she revealed a colorful history and outlook, musically and otherwise. See for yourself:
BBP: How do you like D.C.?
Renee: What? Say that again. Ask me again.
BBP: How do you like playing in D.C.?
Renee: I love D.C. I’ve never been to the Capitol before.
BBP: How would you characterize your music? If you could describe your music in five words or less, how would you describe it?
Renee: It-is-very-good-blues (laughs)
BBP: Now you’re from Cincinnati. They have their own thing going on out there.
Renee: Wherever you go, they’re all with their own thing.
BBP: But how would you characterize Cincinnati blues scene. What’s it like? What makes Cincinnati blues different from other blues?
Renee: It is very good blues (laughs).
BBP: How old were you when you started playing piano?
Renee: I was in the fourth grade.
BBP: Okay.
Renee: I took piano lessons when I was in the fourth grade.
BBP: Did you start off playing blues, or did you start off doing something else.
Renee: No, it took me a long time. I went on the road with show bands and R and B, top 40, funk, rock and roll, all that kind of stuff, classic rock. Until, in the 90’s about ten years ago, they kept telling me, you should play blues, you should play blues, I said ‘I don’t like blues…everybody’s all fat and stuff. I’m too pretty for that (laughs). They kept feeding me blues and blues and blues. I said, ‘hey wait a minute, this is good!’ (laughs). And I found out, yeah, I was made for that.
BBP: Do you see yourself playing anything else now? I mean are you pretty much solidly anchored in the blues?
Renee: I do other stuff because I like other stuff. (Sings) “I-know-what-boys-like” (laughs) (Sings again) “So just daaance!” I like everything. I really like everything.
BBP: Who do you like on piano? Who did you listen to growing up?
Renee: I listened to a lot of people. But now, I’m into McCoy Tyner, Marcia Ball, Ricky Nye in Cincinnati. He’s like international boogie-woogie, Cincinnati is a boogie-woogie piano-playing town mostly. And uh, Growing up with that using both hands, Look, ma, I’m using both hands! (laughs).
BBP: It’s not a guitar town like Chicago is…
Renee: No, No. It’s definitely a piano town. We have a blues festival there every year and there’s a boogie-woogie piano stage and people from all around the world come and play on that stage. They haven’t invited me yet but I’ve played the blues festival every year but just not on the piano stage. (laughs)
BBP asked her about her and Them Bones winning third place in the 2010 International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
Renee: It’s alright. You know there are a lot of people who don’t compete and I will never compete again I am so tired of being judged. (laughs) And there are a lot of people that you never heard of before
that are wonderful players and stuff. They just don’t feel like…and a lot of people don’t believe that music is for sport or competition. And I’m one of those people. I did it just because I could and I don’t think I’ll be doing that too soon again. I’m proud of myself that I made it to third place internationally but you know uuuuuuu(laughs). It’s all relative.

BBP: You beat out how many bands to do that?

Renee: Yeah but how many bands really care, even? Look at it, there was a hundred bands that competed, there’s a lot more bands out there that are just as good, or better. Competition (gives Bronx cheer)

BBP: What did you think of this blues festival?

Renee: I liked it. I had a good time. I met the other girl, Diunna Greenleaf, we met her 2005 we made the finals in the competition down there and I think she won that year….

BBP: Of all of the other people playing at this festival, which one did you like the most?

Renee: Oh I liked everybody the most. In fact that one guy, I don’t remember what his name was...he looked like a little ZZ Top dude? that boy rocked my world!

Later, she talked a little more about her background, starting with her time in the Boston area.

Renee: That’s where I learned how to play blues. I stayed up there for 14 years and then I moved to Tennessee, I lived there for five years, I was helping out my dad. He was getting old. I was on the road eleven years with different bands, living in New England for 14 years, I got married. I had a good job with the IRS, for ten years, I was married for five, and my husband, I married this white guy who could play guitar really good and sing blues. I admired him so much, so I married him, but it didn’t work out because he was like weird (laughs). But he loved playing and after we got divorced we were still playing together and he liked doing (sings) “I lived five long years with one woman” and he does those songs so well...and he liked doing that since we were married five years. We made a pact when we got married. Ok, we’ll stay married five years, If it doesn’t work out, fuck you, okay? (laughs) We both agreed, and it didn’t work out so…But then I left town after 14 years, got divorced, left the IRS….then I moved to Tennessee and helped take care of my dad, but then he left me. He came back and moved back to Cincinnati, so I stayed in Tennessee for five years and I was really down on my luck. Somebody stole my van all my equipment...all that stuff happened at the same time. So I moved back I took thirty years to come back to town.

BBP: How did you get your current band together?

Renee: Oh, they were already together. When I first moved back to town, I had to find my own place to play. I had my own band in Tennessee, I had my own band in New England, you know, yeah, I was pretty well-renowned, but I didn’t have nothing going on when I came to Cincinnati. These guys have been playing for a long time, so I hooked up with them. 2004 I moved back to town.

BBP: Did you know any of them before you hooked up with them?

Renee: I met them through some other guy I knew that was playing keyboard for them. But he said he was going to move or something or be unavailable. He said “you want to play with them?” I said, “Sure!” (laughs) So that’s how I got the job through my friend, uh what’s his name? (laughs). They call him Jock. He’s real crazy but he plays keyboard good. And he gave me this job. He said, “I don’t feel like playing with them anymore. You play with them”

BBP: …And it’s worked out ever since.

Renee: Wellllll…I don’t know what you call working out but at least I’m living. I also play solo and have my own bands and stuff. But it’s so much play with someone who already has gigs and was established in town.

BBP: And also you seem to steer towards the risqué at times?

Renee: Blues is known for the double entendre

BBP: They can be as nasty as rap songs, but they just don’t use the profanity.

Renee: They don’t use the double entendre they just come right out and say it. (laughs). Yeah, blues is a little bit more undercover.

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