'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.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2007
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