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Stay Tuned: Sari Schorr Revives the Blues at the Turning Point



by Dan Cohen
The blues. So American, yet so primitive. So powerful and yet so dark. So specific, so raw, and yet the blueprint, the skeleton, the wellspring from which virtually all modern popular music has sprung, whether country, pop, jazz, or R&B. It all goes back to Robert Johnson and his magic guitar. And the line of singers and pickers — both guitar and cotton — extending back before him. The blues today, what little you hear of it, seems to have taken on the sheen of the academy, far from its sweaty, pulsing roots. We Americans seem to learn about the blues, maybe read about the blues, even respect the blues — everything but listen to the blues. Those old Johnson or Leadbelly recordings seem awfully quaint, and awfully remote, in light of the latest stream of song from Rihanna or Justin, despite — or perhaps because of — sharing the same source. Then along comes Sari Schorr, who played at the Turning Point in Piermont on Friday. And the blues, the real dirty sad funny wonderful blues, lives again!
Through her voice, and that of her excellent band, featuring the extra-special guitar stylings of Chris Bergson, we are able to tap into the extraordinarily elastic expressive light of the blues and experience its power and poetry anew. First of all, for ninety percent of the show Sari has this huge grin on her face like she’s having the time of her life, which makes it easy to join her. Second, the hair. I could spend the entire review — write an entire book, an ongoing series, even — about her raven tresses: the wonderful weight and volume of them; the way she’s able to swing her hair around and still sing with a stripe of it pasted diagonally across her face; the way it’s such a cliché and yet so freakin’ awesome. Is her power, like Samson, somehow bound up in her locks? I ask you, how can you not sing like that when you’ve got that hair?
Well, you need a voice. And at long last we come to the voice. Not Joplin nor Aretha, but some planet in that galaxy; Sari’s is her own unique blend of utter commitment and sweet ease, floating notes up over the tops of our heads and then swooping down into her meaty lower register and belting with the best of them. She’s a force of nature, a meteor, a comet, and the blues speak through her. She is merely the medium, the tool. And, in the manner of great athletes who, off the court or field, could be passed over as ordinary mortals, she has the unassuming look of a great artist. In streetclothes you’d never guess Steph Curry was an all-star basketball player. Mike Trout on a grocery line looks, well, normal. So it is with Sari. Backstage she appears fairly unassuming. She was wearing some black and white sort of sparkly shirt, and over it a draping wrap or poncho in black. Her biggest rock star affectation was her shoes,  black leather thigh-high boots that seemed like they should be platforms. All in all, she gave the impression of that cool art teacher you had in high school, or that wacky friend who could never keep a job but always had something funny to say. She’s unassuming, and yet… her eyes sparkle. And put a mic in her hand and, well, she’s a gal possessed. Baby, baby, she’s got the feeling.
Her band could not be better. And they had the sort of easy rapport with her that comes from lots of playing, years of hard work. Bergson is a brilliant guitarist and an elegant sideman, never pulling focus from Sari but relishing his opportunities to shine — and Sari gave him many. He’s got an original soloing style. He remains strictly in key; he never plays “out there,” jangling, discordant lines like Scott Henderson or Vernon Reid. No, he distinguishes himself through his acute sense of time, and his grand surprising gestures and leaps of register. He’ll play a twisted flurry of notes way up the neck and suddenly jump down two octaves and hold and bend a single note for all it’s worth. He’s a great listen. Likewise, Craig Dryer backed her up ably on keyboard, and really shined in his few tasty solos on sax. He should have played it more! Rhythm section of drummer Diego Voglino and bassist Andy Huenenburg laid down a rock-solid, unfussy groove.
So Sari didn’t do it alone, as she’ll be the first to admit. She introduced each of her colleagues by name, and not when they were playing. No, when they could take a real bow. I spoke to her before the show and she was at pains to acknowledge, as most real blues artists are, her debt to her elders, especially Buddy Guy and Walter Trout, with whom she had just played at Carnegie Hall, as well as Joe Louis Walker, with whom she has toured extensively in Europe and beyond. But Sari’s sound is her own. She cycled through a few blues styles to start the show, including a killer ballad, “Letting Go,” dedicated to the wife of Mike Vernon, her producer, before singing a gorgeous version of the old classic “In the Pines.” Near the end of her set she sang “Ordinary Life,” a wistful, evocative song from her new album (set to drop in August 2016), whose name she still hasn’t totally decided on. Decide, Sari, decide already! The world needs to hear your voice.
She played a quirky version of Leadbelly’s “Black Betty,” which I didn’t even know was a Leadbelly song. Started like a dirge, just voice and guitar, before the band kicked in and they kicked out the jams. The only odd note of the evening was when they ended with a straight cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Go Ask Alice.” Though of course Sari sang the hell out of it, it seemed odd to end her celebratory set with this martial cautionary tale of a song. But I quibble. She’s got an amazing voice and sang with fire and grace. Go see her, and hear the living blues again, for the very first time.

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