It's not unusual to find an aspiring blues band playing with gritted teeth, as if strain and visible sweat, rather than ancestry, could vouch for its right to drawl and bend notes. One suspects that, if the members of Blue Mama ever grit their teeth, it would be to stifle the urge to collapse in laughter.
"Saturday Night Suburbia" is roots music with a wink, played by veterans who view their performance not as a test of authenticity but as a reason to have some fun with the form. The band's fundamental humor and musical vitality come nonstop, making this 19-song, hour-plus excursion go by like an express train through a sleepy burg.
Musical humor seldom works without seriously good performances, and Blue Mama's ensemble of South Orange County stalwarts get blues music (and tangential country, pop and R&B; strains) right before they twist it. Key contributors are Tim Horrigan, playing an insouciant barrelhouse piano and lively organ; guitarists Joe Lehr and Dennis Roger Reed, and Marty McPhee, who dabs on raspy splashes of Chicago-blues harmonica.
Sometimes the humor is in the playing itself, as in the goofy but still nicely motivating syncopated percussion on "Blue to Blue" or in the dumb, slobbery fuzz-guitar solo Lehr lobs into "Tonight, Tonight" like a big spitball. More often, the fun comes through in the spirit of the band and in the wry singing and songwriting. Reed is the most prolific writer among a consortium of near-equals.
The lyrics usually turn on pithy witticisms, and the vocal performances back them up with just the right tone: a note of long-suffering, good-humored complaint that's as integral to the blues as such anguished soliloquies as John Lee Hooker's "Serve Me Right to Suffer" or B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone."
Whether they're hilariously snake-bit, on "Blue to Blue," or chagrined for being far too trouble-free for proper blues men, Blue Mama's singer-songwriters play the angles the form affords.
"I'm trying to live the blues, gets a little harder every day / Tryin' to live the blues, good fortune gets in my way," Lehr rasps with deadpan annoyance in "Tryin' the Blues."
Mainly, though, Blue Mama is preoccupied with sex. Reed aptly cites TV's impossibly alluring illusions as the source of today's sexual hang-ups ("TV Girls") and instead pledges his prurient interest to an Old Master in "Peter Paul Rubens." A nifty acoustic-chugger knockoff of Nick Lowe, this may be the funniest song about sex and art since the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso."
Peter Paul Rubens was a master of dark and light,
Back in the 1600s, he chose his models right.
He painted ample, naked women, lordy what a beautiful sight.
I may not know much about art, but I know what I like.
A few songs are delivered in earnest. "Mackenzie Breaks" is a good representation of early-'70s country rock a la Jackson Browne. "A Different Brenda," an anthem with a catchy country-Beatles mixture, puts the Blue Mama knack for phrase-spinning to work in a more serious context. Horrigan plays a manipulative boyfriend who deservedly gets dumped, leaving him to mull, dejectedly, "It was the best of times, for even the worst of wines / And I must have had too many when I saw her on the street the other day."
(Available from PlasticMeltdown Records, P.O. Box 403, San Clemente, CA 92674, or (714) 493-1883.)
Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent), with three stars denoting a solid recommendation.
* Blue Mama plays with Miller's Bluestime on Sept. 6 at Lookers, 24921 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point. (714) 488-3106.