'Blues is a Woman' Custom Made Theater, San Francisco, CA

Review: ‘Blues is a Woman’ relives the Greats

Story by Carol Canter.

‘Blues is a Woman,’ from Ma Rainey to Bonnie Raitt, at San Francisco’s ”Custom Made Theater through August 27

Tammy Hall and Pamela Rose, Blues is a Woman, Custom Made Theater, San Francisco, CA
Tammy Hall and Pamela Rose (Photo: Jane Higgins)

I didn’t plan it this way, but looking back on my concert-going this summer, I see it’s been all about women in music: the fabulous Storm Large, with the SF Symphony, paying tribute to France’s Edith Piaf; Brazilian phenom Claudia Villela showcasing her vocal chops at SFJAZZ; Joan Baez, ever more radiant with each passing year, headlining the Summer of Love tribute at the Nourse Theatre; and A Night with Janis Joplin at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, in which the unforgettable “queen of rock & roll” celebrates her biggest musical influences — the great blues singers Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Odetta, Etta James and Aretha Franklin. Now these same Blues legends, and then some, are introduced this month in a knockout show no music fan should miss. ‘Blues is a Woman’ is on through August 27 at the intimate Custom Made Theatre on Sutter Street near Powell in San Francisco.

And if you didn’t know that the Blues is a Woman, you will by the time an ensemble of 6 seasoned musicians – sassy, serious, seductive and surefooted — take you on a rip-roaring journey through some profound musical history that resonates as strongly as ever today.  Their own top-notch performances weave songs and potent storytelling in and around riveting film clips from “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith, the most popular blues singer of the 1920s and 30s to Nina Simone, whose knife-wielding cry out against racism, “Backlash Blues,” put a spell on us all.  Names like Sippie Wallace, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie will be new to many in the audience, while Sophie Tucker, Peggy Lee, Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt are some of the featured white blues singers.

Shaunna Hall, Kristin Strom and Pamela Rose, Blues is a Woman, Custom Made Theater, San Francisco, CA
Shaunna Hall, Kristin Strom and Pamela Rose

Playwright and performer extraordinaire Pamela Rose says her biggest challenge in writing the show was deciding which blues women to feature – and whom to leave out.  Rose goes deep into musical history, and presents us with “the archetypal blues woman – fierce, passionate, who did not suffer in silence and is still with us.”

And so we have Ma Rainey, who warned other women: “Don’t Fish in my Sea.”  Ida Cox wanted it nice ‘n slow in her “One Hour Mama.” And no one sang those heartbreaking “Backwater Blues” like Bessie Smith.  What woman of a certain age today hasn’t sung Aretha’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T: find out what it means to me” more than a few dozen times, especially whenever she might have felt disrespected.

Music Director Tammy Hall, the extraordinary pianist and Bay Area treasure who has accompanied so many greats from Ernestine Anderson to Etta Jones, Mary Wilson, Kim Nalley, Barbara Dane and more, sifted through hundreds of recordings with Pamela Rose to help shape a musical vision into a hybrid show — part theater/part concert — that fully earns its standing ovation.  Hall’s personality, warmth and fine vocals, along with her dazzling skill on piano, help anchor the show. Drummer Daria Johnson’s rousing vocal performance of “Nobody Knows the Way that I Feel this Morning” is a standout.

Kristen Strom, great on sax and vocals, is a Bay Area native who has performed with the Manhattan Transfer, Roberta Flack, Natalie Cole and more. Ruth Davies on upright bass has graced the stage of many jazz and blues stars from Van Morrison to Charles Brown, Bonnie Raitt and Clark Terry.  Shaunna Hall was the first female guitarist to tour with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and toured internationally with P-Funk for ten years.

The intimacy of the 99-seat Custom Made Theatre, where each seat feels front row, enhances the sense of camaraderie the cast creates.  We feel we’re all in this together, whether watching Pamela Rose wail her own version of “Ball and Chain” which Janis Joplin imprinted on us half a century ago, or watching clips from the 1920s to 60s with these same 6 stellar performers who stand still and marvel with us at women who determined they were not gonna take it any more, and turned their rage, pain and pride into the blues.


IF YOU GO: Runs through Aug 27, Thurs-Sat 8:00 pm; Sunday matinees Aug 13, 20 & 27 – 3:00pm.  See https://custommade.org/box-office for details. Tickets $30-$50. (415) 798-2682.