At age 55, and with the release of her second strong release for the Blind Pig Records label, Robin Rogers should be celebrating a successful pinnacle of her career as a blues singer and harp player. But, just a short time before the album appeared in stores, complications from the hepatitis C she had contracted more than two decades ago put her in the hospital, where an inoperable cancerous tumor was discovered in her liver.
Rogers lived a hard life in her teens and twenties, developing serious addictions to drugs and alcohol. But eventually, she cleaned up, and once married to guitarist Tony Rogers, she began making a name for herself as a hard-edged blues performer who clearly knew the depths and the heights life had to offer. Her Back in the Fire album is a seriously strong record from an artist who has captured the essence of her live sound.
Robin Rogers' Back In The Fire
Consider her cover of Little Willie John’s classic "Need Your Love So Bad." Mark Stallings sets a cabaret mood with his sparkling piano and, at the beginning, Robin sings the song with only his backing. Slowly, the full band comes in, led by Tony Rogers' jazzy guitar chords, and fueled by softly humming horns in the background. Robin's voice cracks in all the right places, making the ache of desire palpable as she sings the familiar lyrics. Tony's guitar solo is a thing of beauty here, a devilish response to her vocal declaration of need. He opens with a low growl, then bends notes in the mid-range of the guitar, all telling her how much he can give if she only finds him. It's one chorus, chock full of emotion to match Robin's demands.
Other covers on the album include the Big Maybelle song, "Ocean of Tears." After a dramatic opening with cymbal flourishes, Robin comes in singing very slowly and powerfully, "Mama, mama, save your drowning child." Then over a sultry groove, Robin uses controlled melisma with great taste. Her voice is right in the pocket of this groove before giving way to a piercing, rhythmic guitar solo from Tony which lasts two choruses. Then it comes back to end the way it began, with Robin sounding even more desperate.
Then there’s the Irma Thomas number, "Hittin' On Nothin," written by Allen Toussaint. With that irresistible New Orleans groove, and some phrasing straight out of Thomas' model, Robin's cracked voices captures the snark of the song – "You ain't hittin' on nothin' unless you got something for me." A long outro finds the band kicking it up a notch and Robin snaps lines from "Hit the Road Jack."
Don't Walk Away Run
Probably the most astounding song on the record was written by a little known contemporary blues artist named Chuck Glass. It's called "Don’t Walk Away Run" and it deals with the issue of domestic violence. Robin opens the song with an expressive blast of blues harp, capturing the pain and sorrow she feels for her friend in a bad situation. "I'm sorry to hear about the bruise on your face/You've got to grab up those kids now and get out of that place."
The song's chorus has a nicely rising melody which expresses the hope for escape: "Leave him tonight before the morning sun/Don’t walk away run." Robin sounds so strong here, so close to her friend, so sympathetic. Tony then plays the richest solo of the record, with taut, expressive bent notes jumping out of quick runs and lots of rests. It’s a masterful connection between husband and wife worried about those couples who don’t have what they have.
The rest of the songs were written by Robin and Tony, who have a nice feel for the basic blues idioms we all know and love. The album opens with an affirmative, take-charge mood, "Baby Bye-Bye." After Tony's rigorous, chopping chords, Robin belts out lyrics of rejection – "My eyes were closed so I could not see/The only one you ever loved was you." "Second Time Around" rides a tough groove with an open-hearted theme; Robin's sweet song sounds like love and tenderness itself.
"The Plan" is a beautiful statement of contentment, made sadly ironic by the turn of events in her life. Tony picks some very controlled guitar licks, and Robin sings "I couldn’t feel much better even if I tried/Everything is going according to plan." Robin's voice dominates in an arrangement with lots of open space; her harp and Tony's guitar comment gently, while the piano, bass, and drums offer firm support. Robin offers a pure and emotive harp solo – her instrumental chops on the instrument are not flamboyant, but are always expressive.
The album ends with a slow, bluesy faux-Rolling Stones styled song. It's sort of the anti-"You Can’t Always Get What You Want," with a 30-voice choir answering Robin’s uplifting vocals. "We all need somebody to reach out and touch us, to hold us and tug us, tell us what we are worth." It's a joyous and lovely way to end a record which acknowledges suffering but which is ultimately as much about pleasure as pain.
Steve's Bottom Line
Robin Rogers, of course, as a musician, has no health insurance, and her bills are mounting. Fans who are interested in providing help directly to the family can donate by sending a check (made out to Tony Rogers) to: Robin Rogers c/o Piedmont Talent Agency, P.O. Box 680006, Charlotte, NC 28216. In addition, the Charlotte Blues Society has set up a PayPal account, with 100% of the proceeds benefiting Robin, donations can be made on the society's website.
Fans can also help by purchasing CDs from Rogers' website. Benefits and fundraising efforts are also being organized, and fans can follow developments on a newly created Facebook page: Robin Rogers Benefit Central.
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