Release date: August 29, 2023
By David Whiteis
Photo by Roman Sobus
In the blues, victories are hard-won. This is a music that dares to stare down life – its travails, injustices, and inequities – and then dance defiantly in its face. As poet Toi Derricotte has written, “Joy is an act of resistance.” The music of Chicago’s Melody Angel exemplifies that truism.
“It's my birthright There's your soundbite I take the old sound I give it new life I put the swag on it I make it funky Come and see about it
Ain't she pretty
I know you're scared now
I'm taking over
I'm getting bolder and bolder
-- Melody Angel ("Blues in My Hands)
By Angel’s own account, her latest album is both a celebration of survival and an affirmation of identity and independence. Some of the recordings that preceded it, as girded with righteousness and power as they were, were also a flair launched into the darkness, reflecting her determination – against all hope, it sometimes seemed – to summon light amid the soul-shattering despair that threatened to overtake life during the COVID pandemic and its aftermath. “I spent most of  working on my third album, She Black,” Angel told Blues Music Magazine‘s Bradley Alston not long ago. “[That] album saved my life and my sanity. I have never been prouder of a project. . . the truth I shared in the lyrics really healed me. Music is a powerful gift and I’m grateful for it.”
Angel has always been proudly rooted in the blues, but her determination to avoid cliché, speak her mind about social issues, and resist the pigeonholing that some critics and fans still like to force “blues” artists to conform to have resulted in backlash from certain quarters. Nonetheless, she remains undaunted (“I’m not going to just wait on the ‘blues community’ to be okay with me all the time,” she told me in a 2021 interview; “I have to be true to myself.”). With Indie Blues Girl, she reaffirms her determination to embrace that legacy, even as she refuses to compromise any other facet of who she is or what she stands for. On outings like “Blues In My Hands,” “I’ll Tell You,” and “Down to the River,” she rocks as hard as she ever has, her guitar leads reflecting the influence of blues masters like the late Otis Rush (a family relative), along with early idols like Jimi Hendrix and Prince.
Angel, who honed her chops leading early aggregations like Melody Angel and the Message (“Rock, rock & roll and the blues, and funk. Hendrix and Prince – that was it in the beginning”) but has also put in time playing acoustic sets at various open mics and folkie bistro stages around Chicago, has cultivated a guitar style that reflects the commonalities among these diverse influences. As hard-charging as her rhythmic impetus can be, and as searing as her tone can get when she’s ascending into upward-arcing realms of freedom and release, the harmonic, melodic, and timbral conceits she’s borrowed from her role models have allowed her to forge a style that emphasizes precision and dexterity without sacrificing either the emotional intensity or the spiritual/psychic militancy that lie at the heart of both blues and rock & roll expression. Her vocals, likewise, have toughened and deepened since she made her recording debut with In This America in 2017. Despite her callow-sounding timbre and phasing (exemplifying her self-proclaimed identity as an “Indie Blues Girl”), she’s capable of mining realms of emotional complexity that many listeners might associate more with soul, old-school R&B, and adult-oriented pop than traditional blues.
In that spirit, several semi-acoustic numbers on Indie Blues Girl (“I Could've Loved You;” “What's Done Is Done”) allow her to revisit her allegiance to pop balladeers like Tracy Chapman; meanwhile, though, her message retains its bite. “Down to the River,” with imagery drawn from the nightmare of Klan-era Southern subjugation and murder (“They wanna take me down, down, down to the river . . . never to be seen”), invokes the nightmarish sense of being at the mercy of perusal and persecution – often at the hands of poseurs who “dress like you, walk like you, talk like you / But they just don't fit the bill” – that continues to haunt Black American life; “I’ll Tell You” and “No Second Chances” (the latter swathed in a viciously ironic folk-pop mellowness that Angel ravages with a lead guitar line that cuts as deeply, and draws as much blood, as any she’s ever unfurled) are uncompromising portrayals of the bleakness of everyday life in the “ghetto”; “Survivor’s Guilt” limns the torment consuming the protagonist after a loved one is “shot in the back running away” at the age of nineteen; “He’s A Man” finds a woman resolutely affirming her love and loyalty to a Black man whose life and heart have been toughened by adversity (“I compare him to a runaway train / Ain't nobody going to stand in his way”). The closer, the spiritual “Hold On,” is a song of perseverance through struggle, featuring a cameo by Angel’s mother, singer/actress Stephanie Crystal, who also sings back-up on her shows.
Nonetheless, as exemplified by “Blues In My Hands,” the heart of Melody Angel’s music is celebration; in performance, when she’s fortunate enough to be commanding a stage that’s sufficiently spacious, that celebratory spirit bursts into glory as she unleashes her full armamentarium of spins, leaps, guitar acrobatics, and spontaneous dance moves. The “act of resistance” she exemplifies in everything she writes, sings, and plays comes alive with hard-won jubilance, further reflecting the defiant exultation that permeates this disk’s anthemic opening track:
"Your opinion don't impress me
Your dirty looks now keep me smiling
I got an attitude then come and check me
Put up my dukes now
No one protects me
Think you can take me
Then let me loose
I'll show the world what I can do"
Buy or hear the music: www.melodyangelmusic.com
About the Author: David Whiteis is a Chicago writer and educator, who was awarded the Blues Foundation's Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. He is the author of Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories; Southern Soul-Blues; Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago; and Always the Queen: The Denise LaSalle Story. His articles have appeared in numerous blues and jazz magazines, both in the U.S. and overseas.