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Del Rey and Suzy Thompson

by Glenn Weiser on April 20, 2011

Caffe Lena, April 15
The two women on the stage of Caffe Lena last Friday were a study in contrasts. Seattle native Del Rey, a masterful fingerstyle guitarist and ukuleleist, was tall and statuesque in a tight, black, silk dress, while Suzy Thompson, an adept flatpicking guitar accompanist and stellar fiddler from Berkeley, Calif., was short and earthy-looking in a sweater and jeans. Rey’s roots are in prewar blues and 1920s novelty ragtime; Thompson draws more from string band and Cajun styles. But their playing intersected seamlessly on that out-of-the-way musical street corner, frequented by the likes of prewar fiddle-and-guitar blues duo the Mississippi Sheiks and Jazz Age ukulele virtuoso Cliff Edwards, later known as the gravelly voice of Walt Disney’s classic cartoon character Jiminy Cricket.

The pair began the first of two superb sets with “Yellow Dog Blues,” an instrumental by W.C. Handy, who fatuously claimed to be the “inventor of the blues.” Thompson played fiddle, flashing her smooth blues chops on the eight-to-the-bar melody, as Rey, who took up the guitar at age four, provided an energetic backing marked by rolling bass runs. Both established themselves as formidable pickers from the get-go.

Soon afterward, Thompson sang Bessie Smith’s “Easy Come, Easy Go Blues” with Rey backing on fingerstyle guitar. Although Rey turned out to be the better guitarist, Thompson was the superior singer (Rey’s voice was slightly nasal and hadn’t as much power). Thompson’s gritty, vibrato-laden vocals did the Empress of the Blues justice, while Rey’s up-the-neck chords supplied delicious accompaniment. Rey then switched to ukulele, and, with Thompson on guitar, performed Porter Steele’s 1901 Dixieland classic “High Society.” In a departure from the usual improvisation, jazz musicians starting with clarinetist Alphonse Picou have traditionally played Steele’s original piccolo variations verbatim; Rey followed suit and flawlessly plucked through the challenging obbligato.

In support of energy conservation, Rey offered a pair of originals, “Bicycle Blues” and “The Bus Song,” issued earlier this year as a 45 rpm record to benefit the Transportation Choices Coalition. “The Bus Song,” in which she derides some annoying fellow passengers, was particularly witty. Also noteworthy were Rey’s covers of Memphis Minnie, one of the few successful female prewar blues guitarists. Rey managed Minnie’s intricate guitar parts with ease as Thompson contributed tasty fiddle lines.

I loved this show. The house was treated to a knockout performance by two hugely talented musicians in top form.