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The Queen Of Burlesque Swing Is Back, And In Rare Form.
By Mari Wadsworth
SIX YEARS AGO a band of a different color swept into town for a one-nighter on the Club Congress stage, and local roots-rock fans have never been the same. Hundreds of live performances and two albums later, she doesn't remember much about the Congress gig, except that "there weren't very many people there." That's a mistake long since rectified.
In the ensuing years, Candye Kane earned a devoted following, both at home and abroad, for her distinctive brand of blues, country, rockabilly, jump swing, Tex-Mex and the occasional gospel song. She is irresistible, which has allowed her to break all the rules with style. "Blues purists," a subgroup she talks about with a sardonic air, call her a country singer. But she talks about her beginnings as a country singer in L.A. back in the early eighties with her first band, Rawhide.
"That's how I started singing again, country and rockabilly. At that time it didn't matter--we'd come out and do Wanda Jackson and Tammy Wynette songs on the same stage as punk bands, and nobody cared. I really hope things go back to that, because it's hard, you get pigeonholed. I'm in a blues band right now so I get put on shows like Texas Women and the Blues, and shows with other blues bands. I think it's so much more interesting when they put me on with, like, weird freaky drag queen bands, and polka bands. It's so much more fun for me as a musician, and for the audience.
"Anyway, I got a record deal from playing in L.A. bars back in 1986. It was a developmental deal, and they sent me to Nashville. At that time there was no Lyle Lovett, there was no k.d. lang, no one pushing the boundaries of country music at all. Dwight Yoakam wasn't even real famous yet. He was the first maverick who was sort of pushing the rules. So off I went to Nashville with my purple hair, and wearing black lace and combat boots, which is so commonplace now no one cares. In L.A., no one batted an eye. But in Nashville it was really weird, to look like that. Billy Sherrill (the big-name producer) didn't understand. He said, 'Well, you look like Cyndi Lauper, why do you want to sing country music?' I tried to explain that I was a big fan of the Carter family, and how I looked shouldn't matter and this was the kind of music that I loved. But he really didn't understand...maybe in part because he was drinking bourbon at 10 in the morning. Whatever. He just didn't get it."
When the big meeting with Sherrill went awry, Kane's then-manager (who'd also managed Chris Hillman of The Byrds, Dwight Yoakam, Rosie Flores and The Oakridge Boys) suggested they "make some adjustments," which included a cosmetic makeover and renouncing her past as a sex star. Kane's thanks-but-no-thanks response spawned a few more memorable years playing clubs like Hollywood's legendary hardcore punk-club the Cathay de Grande, and a self-produced tape of "dirty songs" she called Burlesque Swing. Released in 1992, it was this tape that not only came to define a genre unto herself, but led to a new deal with, ironically, the strongly traditional Texas blues label Antone's (recently bought out by Discovery).
"Everyone was asking me what I was doing. So I took elements of my (burlesque) past and brought it into a swing format. If somebody has to pigeonhole us, we're definitely more of a swing, or jump swing band, and we do some blues and some country and some accordion songs. We throw a lot of stuff into the melting pot.
"Blues purists don't think I'm a solid blues act, and they can think whatever they want. I use my music to bring people together. I think blues purists and critics often use music to divide people, to say 'she's not as good as Bonnie Raitt, and she's not as bluesy as so-and-so'...that's not the point. The point is that at a Candye Kane show, you can see queers, fat girls, and blues fans and you can see rockabilly kids and you can see a whole wide range of people that if you saw them on the street and asked what they have in common with lesbians (or punk rockers or rockabilly kids), they'll say 'nothing.' But you can see them all in my audience, so clearly they do all have something in common...they share a love of eclectic, wild music.
After more than a decade of singing her heart out on stage, her recent recording success is a sign that the musical world is big enough for her enormous talent. Home Cookin', her debut release back in 1994, is a 14-course buffet of blues and swing, with a couple of morsels of Tex-Mex and country ballads, like the wry "Dance Hall Girls," an ode to the sex biz.
"It's a fun song, but you know, it's kind of ironic...most of those girls are actually looking for Mrs. Right," she laughs.
Nothing is sacred in her live performances, except her desire to put on a good show. Personally charged accounts of being a teenage welfare mom in East L.A., of being a stripper to support her musical career, of being a 5-foot-5, 200-plus woman who lives across the street from the beach in Southern California, and a happily married bisexual woman with two boys (ages 7 and 16) are among the topics she tackles in her songwriting and on-stage banter.
"I really admire and respect the (roots) tradition. But I am a parody of myself. I do bring a Hollywood element to the blues that some people don't understand. It's gotten me in trouble at times. But it's interesting that I got signed to a Texas blues label where they're very purist and very traditional about their blues."
Off-tour after a recent stint in Europe, Kane's Tucson and Phoenix shows will preview old favorites and new material from Diva La Grand, an album she says is "in its early stages" and due out this spring. She says this is the album for those after the energy and attitude of her live shows. "There are songs that people have been seeing in my shows for a long time that will be on the record, like "All You Can Eat," her gospel number "Love 'Em and Forgive 'Em," and songs she says "bend the rules a little bit," like the barrelhouse blues song "The Lord Was A Woman."
"I think I'm forging my own audience and it's not just a blues audience. It's really empowering for me. Tucson is one of those cities where it works, where you can see people from all walks of life come together."
Candye Kane performs on Saturday, October 19, in the back lot of the Rialto Theater, Fifth Avenue between Congress Street and Broadway. The Crawdaddy-o Brass Band opens the show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $6 at the gate, free for Friends of the Rialto members. Call 740-0126 for information.