In a steady evolution from her days not so long ago as a solo singer-songwriter who was picking her way through the emotional shards of a series of tough breaks, to her emergence as an artist discovering, and lately coming to terms with, the challenges of inhabiting a fully-formed musical persona, Faye seems to be seeking out larger venues while also fronting a more multifaceted band.
For last October's outdoor benefit concert, before an audience of over three hundred, she assembled a lineup of musicians that showcased her vocal range and stylistic diversity better than any since her CD release. With Eric Brice (lead guitar) and Wesley White (congas) joined by newcomers Johnny Jackson (bass), Dee Shelton (keyboards) and Rockwell Silas (drums) of Crop Circle, there was no onstage energy shortage. Is it warming up, said Faye, introducing ‘Understanding You,’ or is it just me gettin' hot?
This is not to suggest that Faye's softer side was under-represented. The first set included her version of Wind Beneath My Wings which unlike arrangements that attempt to punch the vocal high notes until the number goes completely over the top Faye sang with a tender intimacy and restrained fervor that amounted to a revelation. Her voice can soar, but in this number it simply, delicately floated, ever higher, like a single feather in a thermal updraft or a bubble in a sunbeam.
It's been said that transforming mainstream standards is one of Faye Raye's signature talents. She now, for instance, has staked a nearly unassailable claim to John Denver's 1967 classic, Leaving, On A Jet Plane. In her Wren's Nest rendition, she avoided the song's obvious hooks in favor of more nuanced angles and edges. Alternately, coy and seductive, brassy and sassy, then flirtatious and confident, Faye substituted a postmodern irony for the sixties aura of sentimental longing - daring her imaginary partner, who must remain behind, to make do with ONLY a kiss, emphasizing Don't know WHEN I'll be back again. Then, as she sang When I come back I'll wear your diamond ring. during the second verse she couldn't resist a playfully petulant aside: But make it a big one. Throughout, Eric's lead guitar maintained a tender but assertive, byplay with Faye's vocal and rhythm work that was delightfully reminiscent of Louis Armstrong's gender tug-o-war Let's Call The Whole Thing Off.
As lengthening shadows lent a chill to the October evening, Faye and friends began to turn up the heat with another crowd favorite - Bridge Over Troubled Water. Faye's voice conferred a plaintive, hymn-like sense of existential longing to the initial verse passages then pivoted on a chorus section to make the second half of the number a hip-swaying, hand-clapping gospel train. With Dee Shelton raising holy fire on the keyboards as if he'd hijacked a vintage Hammond B3 from one of the West End's churches, the rhythm section settling into a pumping uptempo groove, and Eric getting more tasty licks in, it was time to figuratively lift the flaps on the revival tent and let some steam out. I'm gonna lay me down, sang Faye in her earthiest soprano, and what soul could doubt her?
For fans of Southern soul, the evening's high point may have been the medley of Faye's own Understanding You and the Staples' I'll Take You There. Understanding opens with a straight 1-4-5 major chord progression played in a brisk staccato on Faye's acoustic guitar. Understanding you, she sings, I'm 'bout to understand my life away. With this declaration of independence Faye surged ahead with the urgency of someone so eager to find a way out of trouble that thoughts beyond merely escaping may be beside the point. Dee's organ and Eric's guitar traded gorgeous blues and soul tinged background motifs that threatened to burst forth into a full fledged jam at any moment while the insistence of Faye's vocal kept a firm hold of the reins.
Hear me out, now, she seemed to be saying...there are complications. More than just a way out, I'm looking for love, peace and happiness ... but I've spent a lot of time on the run. As the song continued and the groove deepened, the band magically, almost imperceptibly, transitioned from 'Understanding' to 'Take You There': We're movin' on up. Movin' on out. Talkin' 'bout a change. A change comin' over me. Faye seemed to discover a sense of direction, a newfound certainty: An' I know a place y'all. Ain't nobody cryin'. She sang with new confidence. Let me take you there. Once turned loose to jam, Eric and Dee displayed more spirited solo work while the rhythm section delivered some its most inspired playing of the set.
As the show began to wind down, Faye surprised her producer, Belinda Ross, by dedicating Amazing Grace to her in memory of Belinda's mother, Carol. While Faye imbued the traditional melody with the redemptive spiritual fervor befitting a hymn, she simultaneously undergirded it with a steely sense of strength within despair, bending and stretching her notes in a manner that was equally reminiscent of the blues.
As friends and supporters gathered on stage to join in the final number, Stand By Me, it was clear that a new strong voice, an authentically Southern voice able to invoke all the traditions that entails, was finding its way into a broader arena. A vocal presence whose undercurrents of pain and hope, longing and promise were not merely stylistic adornments but rather, at their best, represented the unaffected stirrings of a vulnerable soul that had lived the blues, born the burden and now sought, above all, simple communion with others who have felt the same.