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CD REVIEW-- Cee Cee James

CEE CEE JAMES

Seriously Raw/ Live at Sunbanks

Blue Skunk Music

Cee Cee James CD

By Linda Cain

Cee Cee James sounds so much like Janis Joplin, you’d almost think you’re hearing a ghost.  In fact, whenever blues DJs in Chicagoland play a cut by Cee Cee, the studio phone lines instantly light up with calls from listeners wondering if a never-released Janis track has been unearthed. But this bawdy blues mama from the Pacific Northwest (who has since moved to Tennessee) is no phantom; Cee Cee is a force-of-nature, no-holds-barred, intensely passionate, singer/songwriter who, like Janis, bares her soul with every performance.

Seriously Raw captures an exciting live Cee Cee James show at the Sunbanks R&B Festival in Washington state. The CD’s title is apt in several ways.  It describes what Cee Cee’s throat must have felt like after all the screamin’, shoutin’ and testifying she did on stage that day! Raw also describes her rough-around-the-edges-style, not to mention her brutally realistic life stories and the bare emotions that she brings out on stage. This is no slick performer, but a very real “every-woman” who reveals her humanity, her strengths and weaknesses, her deepest secrets and inner emotions to the audience. Some performers wear their hearts on their sleeves. Cee Cee James tears out her heart on stage to give a little piece of it to the listener. Just like Janis did.

Unlike Janis, Cee Cee won’t become buried alive in the blues. She’s a survivor, as evidenced by the very personal stories of tragedy and redemption told in her songs.

That’s not to say her blues are totally depressing. Yes, she can convey pain and anguish, but she’s also very sexy and funny onstage.

Like Koko Taylor, Cee Cee takes the masculine swagger of classic blues songs and transforms them into anthems of female sensuality and power, with help from her outstanding quartet, who frankly are a superior band to Janis’ original group, Big Brother.  The first cut, Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues” opens with a deliciously raucous slide guitar solo from Rob “Slide Boy” Andrews and a hip shakin’ beat.  Cee Cee improvises on the original lyrics to give the superstitious tale a fun twist. “Going down to Rosedale/ with my sweet papa by my side/ we’re gonna barrelhouse, yeah, yeah, on that riverside” She eggs on her players, cuing them to her whims as she inserts Joplin-esque squeals, screams, moans, cries and wails to fill in the spaces.

Willie Dixon’s “Ain’t Superstitious” is delivered with a funky shuffle by bassist Dan Mohler and drummer Chris Leighton, along with a fluid, note-filled guitar solo by Jason Childs, giving it a contemporary feel.  Cee Cee makes up new lyrics about buying a lotto ticket as she howls and growls like those dogs in the neighborhood.  

The band kicks into Hound Dog Taylor’s “Gimme Back My Wig” with the irresistible “shake your money maker” rhythms and Andrews’ soaring slide guitar. Cee Cee flips the lyrics to turn the song into a humorous tale of a lady who catches her man trying on her wig, high heels and skirt.

“Make It To The Other Side” is a self-penned song from her 2008 CD Lowdown Where The Snakes Crawl.  Listening to the studio version and then the live version is like comparing apples to oranges. Cee Cee certainly knew how to pack an emotional wallop while singing on the critically acclaimed Lowdown sessions. But put her on stage in front of a crowd and she becomes just like a preacher at a tent revival. “How are you gonna cross that river if you don’t know how to swim? I’m gonna make it, dammit, gonna make it to the other side! Lordy, lordy, please!” She begs and pleads her helplessness. Soon she finds her strength and prevails, urging the audience to do likewise.

For her new original song “I Got A Right to Sing the Blues” Cee Cee confesses her life story about “20 years of loneliness with a man who didn’t care,” finding the courage to leave him, finding the true love of her life, but then that man died. “It ripped my heart right open, left me raw to the bone.”  Thus, she reveals the reason she HAD to sing the blues “I done paid my 100 percent dues.”  It’s her therapy, people, and she wants to reach out and heal you, too.

            On her critically acclaimed CD Lowdown, she recorded 11 originals. On Seriously Raw she performs but three originals on the 13 song disc. However, her live festival performances of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want To Make Love to You” and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” aren’t your typical covers. Cee Cee doesn’t simply cover a blues song. She wrestles it to the ground, flips it over, holds it down and stamps her sexy mark all over it.  Oh, yeah, she just wants to make love to you, and rock you baby, you’d best believe it!

On Luther Allison’s haunting “Living in the House of the Blues” you just know that Cee Cee has been in that house, and lived to tell about it. “Lord, I had a fever/ my body cold and wracked with pain/ Lordy, I had such a fever /I felt like I was going up in flames/ If I don’t get my baby back/ you know I’m never gonna be the same.” Jason Child’s nimble, string bending guitar solo reflects the song’s mournful spirit.

Her two-song tribute to the late Janis Joplin includes “Mercedes Benz” and “Bobby McGee” on which she elicits audience participation and speculates on what Janis might have been up to in the back of that luxury vehicle.  

For the record, Cee Cee has noted in interviews that she never set out to sound like Janis. Too young for the Woodstock generation, she was more influenced by ‘70s bands like Bad Company and Zeppelin, along with soul divas like Aretha and Chaka Khan. It was only when fans heard her sing and begged her to cover Pearl’s songs, that Cee Cee decided to learn the late rock legend’s music.  As she points out to the crowd at Sunbanks, she only performs a couple Joplin tunes because, “There is only one Janis.”

Seriously Raw demonstrates how well Cee Cee can work a crowd and get them clapping, cheering, shouting and testifying along with her. Her stories, songs and feelings are both personal and universal truths that everyone can identify with at some point in their lives. For both audience and performer, a live Cee Cee show is a catharsis.  After hearing Live at Sunbanks, you’ll feel like you were there, dancing and singing along, as Cee Cee pours out her heart to you.

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