'Woman in the Room'

I don’t usually expect too much from blues-rock music. It seems that for every well-rooted disciple of the Rolling Stones and Howlin’ Wolf there are a dozen people attracted to the blues primarily as an excuse to indulge in performance heroics without the considerable fuss of actually writing songs. Each lazy tune resembles the others: same chord progression, same 10-minute guitar solo, same impassioned repetition of the same five words.

Like free jazz, fretless bass, and that awful board game with the surgical tools and the noisy buzzer, blues-rock is often far more fun to play than to hear. For this reason, I always thought of Ashley Cleveland’s band as a bit of a musician’s guilty pleasure. Each year at Cornerstone Festival, we stayed up late to hear the virtuosic quartet blister through its set. The band’s enthusiasm was palpable, and we enjoyed it not for the songs but for the prospect of a future in which we, too, could have that much fun making that much noise in front of that many people.

I noticed Cleveland’s songs years later, when I heard her in a solo acoustic setting. Which isn’t to say that she left the rock home with the band—she’s a dynamic and forceful performer. Her inventive use of open guitar tunings creates fresh chord voicings and a full, resonant sound. And I may be the first to wait until a couple hundred words in to note the woman’s voice—a husky, soulful alto of intimidating power.

As for the material, it’s rock solid. Cleveland certainly knows her Stones, along with her hard rock, country, classic R&B, and straight-up blues. Before the Daylight’s Shot consists of high-energy arrangements featuring Cleveland and her guitar-heroic husband, Kenny Greenberg. But this is a songs record—while no element could upstage Cleveland’s singing, the one that comes closest is her sophisticated and varied writing.

A VETERAN CRAFTER of bluesy melodies, Cleveland works from a larger palette here. There’s plenty of loud-and-with-feeling material, but there’s also a great little pop song (“Twilight Hour”) that breaks up the hard-hitting vibe with a bit of British Invasion lilt. And, while slower numbers generally are not Cleveland’s strength, “Satisfied With Drowning” boasts a memorable melody, a gently moving feel, and an unusual but effective chord progression.

The song’s words are unusual, too, and include some lovely cadences: “Baby, don’t be satisfied with drowning/Consumed by the ebb and flow/ You can hear it when the waves are crowning/let go, let go, let go.”

The song is sad but not at all dark; its tone and language resist easy interpretation. This is rare in Cleveland’s work—most of her lyrics have a very direct, earnest quality. Often, she makes this work quite well, packing straightforward but artful words into a compelling treatment of Jacob and the angel (“The Blessing”), a pump-up number for justice seekers and activists (“Ready or Not”), and a heartfelt tribute to Aretha Franklin (“Queen of Soul”).

This last example features a powerhouse of a riff-driven chorus, packed with mixed images of Franklin and others: “There is a woman in the room/in the fullness of her power/there is a woman at the tomb /And another in the tower.”

There’s plenty of great stuff to listen to here. Opener “Queen of Soul” is followed by a shuffling, Hammond organ-driven cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” after which the record plunges into emotionally direct material and doesn’t look back. Before the Daylight’s Shot is a thoroughly straight-ahead project; it covers a lot of ground while breaking none. But it’s packed with solid hooks, thoughtful ideas, masterful guitar work, and some tremendously powerful singing.

Steve Thorngate, a former Sojourners intern, is communications and publications coordinator at the Center for Law and Social Policy.

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"'Woman in the Room'"
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