Doña Oxford happy to return to Music Haven
It’s Boomerang Week, when artists come back here. Some came from here — soul-blues singer Doña Oxford, and C. Jane Run — but Lucius recently made a splash here and are back to do it again, returning to MASS MoCA, where they were breakout stars of Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival.
Doña (say “DON-ya,” Spanish style) Oxford grew up in Watervliet but now lives in Hollywood. She comes back to play at Music Haven on Sunday. (She has also played the Van Dyck and the Palace — guesting with Bob Weir’s Ratdog.)
“My mom was a cabaret singer before she had kids; that was a big part of her,” said Oxford. “She could tell I gravitated to entertainment and she took me to an eclectic group of shows.”
Oxford remembered seeing Tom Jones and Cher at the former Colonie Tent Theater — “Is it still there?” she asked, and sounded sad to hear that it isn’t — and Mel Torme, the Grateful Dead, Adam Ant and other rockers elsewhere. Her earliest inspirations came to her on the small screen. “I sat on my grandma’s lap and watched Liberace play boogie woogie,” she said.
“And on the ‘Lawrence Welk Show,’ there was a woman named Joanne Castle who wore a beehive and played honky-tonk piano.” Records and radio supplied everything else Oxford needed. “I heard Johnny Johnson — Chuck Berry’s pianist for 30 years — and it changed my life!”
Oxford started playing professionally while attending Albany High School (after St. Agnes School, then Doane Stuart). “I think I played two gigs with a punk rock band called Lumpen Proles, when I was 14,” she recalled. Then she detoured into musical theater.
“Studying musical theater in high school took me to the Empire State Youth Theater Institute at The Egg, and that took me to NYU, to the Tisch School,” said Oxford, recalling work as an aerobics instructor at Spa Lady Fitness here between jobs and waiting tables, tending bar and housekeeping in New York.
She left NYU “when I realized that if Steven Spielberg were to audition me for a part, he wouldn’t ask me if I finished my degree.” She mixed acting and music successfully in New York until music won.
“In acting, you’re up against so many people, just for one part,” she said. “But with music, you can be your own person, with more freedom and accessibility.” She released her debut album before 9/11 changed the city. “There was no work, and the tourist scene dried up.”
Going to Chicago
Oxford moved to Chicago, where friends’ predictions of plenty of work proved almost too true. “I’d do a blues-in-schools program in the morning, go home and take a nap, get up and play a cocktail gig in a local hotel bar, then haul ass downtown for a blues gig in a club from 9:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m.; then get up and repeat.”
The grind bothered her less than her supporting-player status. “I was fortunate that I was a keyboard player as well as a singer, so I could get work playing for other people,” she said. “But ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be up front, though making a living dictates what you do.”
She thrived as a supporting player without formal musical training. “I never studied music in college and I didn’t sight-read,” she said, admitting that this cost her some opportunities. “But in jazz and blues, if you can hear the feel and your fingers are able to play it, then you have something that trained players envy.”
After four years in Chicago, Oxford changed her scene, her role and her style. Despite respected contributions to Shemekia Copeland, Popa Chubby and others, “I decided to do sideman gigs less and push for my solo career.”
She moved to Hollywood and resumed recording her own music, leaving New York with a big insight from singing with the late, great Levon Helm. “He was so gracious to me, saying he was impressed with my talent, and very kind in expressing that,” she said. “What an honor to hear that from such a rock legend.”
She decided to “surround myself with people better than I am, and that has allowed me to grow so much faster.” She said, “That really catapulted me in my education.”
With 2008’s “Step Up,” she claimed soul music as her own; a move confirmed by the rough mixes she sent me of her newest effort, “Soul Quest.” She said, “It’s my tribute to all the styles I love best in soul music including Prince, Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald, Al Green, Tyrone Davis — it all hearkens back the music I love the most: 1970s soul.”
The rough mixes snap, crackle and pop, sizzle and sing. Oxford puts her powerful and flexible voice front and center with her keyboards back in the band. Jimmy Vivino played some guitar solos, but the indispensable ingredient besides Oxford’s voice is Colin Ryan’s rhythm guitar playing.
Ryan will be with Oxford on Sunday at Music Haven, in a mix of Oxford’s New York and Hollywood players. She’s glad to be coming home to play in Central Park, where she played with her cousins as a kid. “I can’t wait to see them all!”
Oxford plays a free 7 p.m. show on Sunday at Music Haven. Visit www.MusicHavenStage.com.
C. Jane (re) Run
C. Jane Run played every club and festival around and released three albums of polished but propulsive pop before splitting in 2005. They’re back — guitarist Manchester, singer Lisa Carey, drummer Joanne DeSarbo and bassist-singer Mike Wray (former Gazette writer Mike Lisi) — in a free reunion show at 9 p.m. on Saturday at Katie O’Byrne’s (121 Wall St., Schenectady).
Lucius at MASS MoCA again
NYC rockers Lucius reportedly hit hard at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival — surprise discovery of the festival — so they’re returning to MASS MoCA (1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, Mass.) on Friday for two free shows (free with MASS MoCA museum admission, that is) in the galleries at 3 and 6 p.m. They’re filming both shows, so wear something, you know. Phone 413-662-2111 or visit www.massmoca.org.
J.J. Cale R.I.P.
“Those Tulsa guys, they’re so laid-back they don’t even play,” said a musician in Oklahoma City when I passed through there years ago — and found that city to be about the slowest, mellowest place possible. J.J. Cale (who was actually born in Oklahoma City) might have been the most laid-back Tulsa talent of all time; and his easy-going music has so charmed me over the years that I was sorry to hear he’d died of a heart attack last Friday at 74.
His songs —and the super-relaxed way he played and sang them — projected a completely unique mix of low pressure and high intelligence. We won’t see another one like him.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at email@example.com.