may 2009

How Blue Can You Get?

Gina Sicilia and Christine Santelli, equally at home in blues and country, scorch the earth and hurt so good on their stunning new albums

By David McGee

Gina Sicilia
Gina Sicilia, with ace guitarist/producer Dave Gross: an unabashed blues babe who may be one of the greatest country singers of her generation
Photo by Grudnick

Gina Sicilia
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Christine Santelli
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Go looking for the blues in the mainstream media and you're likely to come away thinking it died as a genre when Stevie Ray Vaughan's helicopter crashed into a mountainside in 1990. Except for some early, gushing coverage of Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, long since dissipated, blues artists toil in relative obscurity—even when a bonafide blues titan such as B.B. King releases one of the best albums of his career, as he did last year with One King Favor, you'll find more effusive praise for the meager talent of Beyonce than you will for the Blues Boy any day.

So I'm not waiting on the MSM to discover what's right under its collective nose in the perfectly agreeable forms of Gina Sicilia and Christine Santelli, because artistry of the caliber they deliver on their new albums may well be beyond the MSM's ability to comprehend. Sicilia's second album, Hey Sugar, and Santellli's seventh album, Any Better Time (third in the studio, with four being live albums she assembled from various gigs in Europe, where she's gained a greater foothold in the market than she has here—figures, right?), are nothing short of spectacular, even stunning showcases for writing, singing and playing of a higher order, by two young women who aren't even close to being at their peaks yet. They are indeed, nominally, blues artists, and in that mode they scorch the earth under their feet with the deepest, rawest, most searing and pitiless documentations of unrequited lust, corrosive longing, broken hearts, and impending doom. Sicialia, already honored for Best New Artist Debut for her 2008 career launch, Allow Me To Confess, is the more intensely personal of the two belles as a writer, whereas Santelli brings personal experience to bear on third person tales, which works equally well in confusing the listener as to whether the "she" in all those songs might really be the singer, so close to the bone do the vocal readings cut. This is a broad generalization, of course, because Santelli has her first-person stories to tell and Sicilia takes on other personas at times too, but always there is a sense of the artists revealing much of themselves, no matter the dramatis personae. Sicilia works on a larger musical palette, with a lively horn section, stomping percussion and roaring guitars to support her belter's voice on the stompers; Santelli favors a small, tight, guitar-driven (her guitar) combo, and adds a big sky flavor to her music with accordions, celeste, pump organ, B3, pedal steel, violin—strings and keys that keep the music earthy and rural-flavored in contrast to Sicilia's more urban-centric, big band-leaning sound.

But—but—as deeply invested in the blues as both young women are, they are also entrenched in traditional country, which they approach every bit as fluidly as they do the blues, and then deliver with such conviction as to remove any doubt as to their natural affinity for this music, too. There's but a thin line separating country and blues of the traditional type—witness the number of 20th Century blues giants who testified to the bond they felt with, and the stylistic markers they assimilated, when shaping their own musical identities—and Sicilia and Santelli both obliterate the line and make a seamless whole of their art. On Any Better Time, Santelli stays on the path of her previous album, the 2006 masterpiece, Tales From the Red Room, which featured a handful of powerful country originals among its blues, most notably the chilling, spare "She Wasn't Wrong," with Mazz Swift adding an unforgettable lonesome fiddle line to support Santelli's tense and terse tale of a gal who followed her dream to destruction; "Take a Look," a thoughtful, bucolic road song with the topical theme of learning to appreciate the world's natural wonders in lieu of partaking of a tour bus's mundane frivolities; the catchy, twanging shuffle of "Stuck In Love," a drinking song quite unlike any other in mood and sensibility; and a beautiful, blues-drenched, solo acoustic fingerpicked take on Elizabeth Cotton's immortal "Freight Train." On the new long player she offers "Ponytails," a lilting, country-flavored ballad spiced with an evocative accordion line; "Down In the Valley," a yearning, country-tinged tale of spouses physically separated by death but spiritually ever-present in each other's hearts; "Calgary," a beautiful, finger-picked and fiddle-flecked reminiscence of lost love, as tender and heart-tugging as Ian Tyson at most plaintive (with that title, perhaps it's an homage to Tyson, in fact); the moody "Lily's Song," concerning a young lady who needs a boost in self confidence to fully flower, featuring a dry, dusty vocal by Santelli backed by Gibb Wharton's evocative, moaning pedal steel lines and some frisky Rhodes interjections by Brian Mitchell that blur the song's point of origin stylistically but make perfect sense; and "On the Farm, an album closer that leaves no doubt as to its latitudes and longitudes, being an unabashed country hoedown with a playful lyric about country cookin' (which will make you hungry for breakfast no matter what time of day you listen to it, so forewarned is forearmed), rousing, foot-stomping acoustic guitar and banjo sparring, jubilant handclaps and an altogether festive front-porch atmosphere about it. On the CD's gatefold photos, Santelli looks every bit the country girl, too, in tight Levi's, a red western-cut shirt with white piping, and her blonde hair failing below her shoulders, acoustic guitar in her hands.

Christine Santelli: Deeply invested in the blues, entrenched in country

When Gina Sicilia tackles country on Hey Sugar, she makes the most of two fascinating covers and one stellar original song. The latter is a loping, honky-tonk styled love tune, "What the Moon Could Never Do," a dreamy, sultry paean to a man whose ability to make her feel secure and loved provides comfort greater even than Mother Nature herself offers—"and as all the seasons change/leaves fall and thunder roars/I don't trust the universe to cover me from the storm/but oh, I can count on you, babe, to come to my rescue/and do the kind of things that the moon could never do" is the telling verse about her all-consuming love for this man, and Sicilia, who does wonderful, emotional punctuations with her voice, has a little classic country hitch in her reading here that makes her sound near tears, an affect that melts the listener's heart, whether by design or by accident. Later, to the atmospheric, muted accompaniment of piano, guitar, bass and brush drums, she immerses herself in Jimmie Davis's elegantly simple country heart-tugger, "Nobody's Darling But Mine," her voice now soaring, now nearly whispering, as she plumbs the depth of feeling and even finds a note of desperation in Davis's forthright plea to a woman to be true to him, which becomes more understandable when the last verse reveals it to be sung by a dying man to the woman he loves. The subtlety with which Sicilia approaches this tale, how she moves from sounding in the early verses like someone terminally insecure in asking for total commitment to the mournful, bottomless sadness she probes in her huskier register at the end, when we learn he is, literally, terminal, is, after you absorb the blow, a tour de force of interpretive singing, rooted in the kind of experience you don't expect a 23-year-old to be able to deliver. The sequencing of "Nobody's Darling But Mine" before the album's penultimate song was a brilliant stroke on somebody's part, as it establishes a pensive mood before Sicilia goes in for the kill on "Coat of Many Colors." Yes, Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors," a country monument penned by Parton at the outset of her career, when the life and lore of her family's hardscrabble life in the hills of Tennessee, where unassailable virtues and values were born of deprivation, formed the foundation for one of the most important bodies of work in country music history. Dolly owns this song; for another artist to take it on, as few have over the years, is impressively, maybe foolishly, daring. Listen to Sicilia's version, then try not to hit "Repeat" and listen again. And again. And again. She doesn't attempt to stand toe-to-toe with Dolly, but rather finds her own place in it. Where Dolly sang with bracing—and brazen—defiance, articulating the pride she felt in her mother making something so valuable out of nothing, which in turn becomes a metaphor for Dolly's own career, Gina comes at it with a profound love for the miracle of the coat, and the blues singer in her cries out the lyrics and makes you feel the pain still wounding her from being the butt of her peers' jokes. Dolly was more about muting the hurt and making hay of her pride in her mother's enterprise and unqualified love for her child; Gina enhances the hurt, even wallows in it so that there's no doubt how the other kids' insensitivity and callousness scarred her. But in the end, she stands with Dolly triumphant, her prized, handmade treasure literally more than the sum of its many parts. It's an astonishing performance from first note to the last, and when it's over you feel you have heard one of the greatest country singers of her generation claiming her turf.

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Gina Sicilia and Dave Gross perform Joni Mitchell's "River" on the "Tim Qualls Holiday Show," 2008. The performance begins at about the 2:20 mark in the video.

But these are blues singers, are they not? Yes, powerfully so. Sicilia storms through some boisterous, horn-rich workouts early on, kicking off the album with two sizzling testimonies to hormone-fueled longing of the most intense kind, "Goin' Home Baby" and the Dixieland-flavored "So Attracted To You." Interestingly, she also pens a couple of class consciousness numbers in which partners of different economic standing attempt to pair off. The churning "Jack and Jill" is a smoldering account of a dangerous liaison between a Tennessee banker and a prison baker, who find themselves back at the lawyer's house, the woman (she's the baker) tumbling for the barrister while his toddler cries in the other room. In "Plain Old Applie Pie," the album closer, a quiet, guitar-vocal heartbreaker, she burns with resigned desperation over what she recognizes will be be her unrequited lust for a man of higher station-"he shines like a brand-new leather shoe/he's holding champagne/I'm holding a beer can, staring at this pretty man/oh, man, I must be insane"-whom she sees across the room putting his arms "around a woman more elegant than I/she's crème bruleee, I'm plain apple pie." As stirring as this is, there's an even darker, far more disturbing-but ultimately heartening-blues ballad about midway through, the likes of which is rare indeed in music, and, tragically, more so in real life. "Bad Years Comin' On," funereal in style, with a churchy piano and a deathly grim B3 backdrop, finds Sicilia confessing to a suicidal bent-her voice trembling, she opens with "After years of slowly fading away/I might not be here to see another day," and proceeds to articulate her vision of "bad times comin' on" for her momma/daddy/brother if she carries on as she has been-"If I keep doing what I'm doing/Eventually I won't live through it/After I'm dead and gone, bad years will be comin' on." There it ends, with a final chord resolving to silence, and the full force of someone talking themselves out of self-destruction hanging in the air for us to ponder. It's chilling, and maybe a genre unto itself, not someone looking back on the damage her behavior has inflicted on others, but halting the suicide express to consider the devastation ensuing from her nightmare rendezvous with mortality. Following this, the lighthearted '50s R&B romp of "Hey Sugar" and the gritty, roadhouse blues of "Cherry Tree" could not be more welcome.

Santelli gets into some dark, blues-drenched places on her own, too. Any Better Time begins with the dark-hued grind of "Good Day For a Hangin'," which is not about the old west but rather is set in the present day, when "the country's at war" and a malevolent spirit infuses the atmosphere around the singer, who's been abandoned by her dog, can't quit smoking, and confesses to waiting "for the other shoe to drop." It would be funny if it weren't so sad. The southern rock flavored blues of "Guilty" is the appropriate backdrop for a tale about a woman whose guilty verdict ("never thought I'd end up doing time") is rendered on evidence of her foolhardy tendency to get involved with the wrong man, one who departs in the dead of night, leaving only his wedding ring behind. But like Sicilia, Santelli breaks the blues mold stylistically from time to time while never leaving the blues behind— the carny atmosphere of "For You" gives the song a shambling, Tom Waits-like quality (especially the calliope and the squeeze toys), and indeed the lyrics are more stream of consciousness images ("a carnival a party clown/to spend the day without a sound/a foreign land and a shooting star/a firefly lighting up a jar for you") than a structured narrative; "Butterfly" might be the counterpart of Sicilia's "Hey Sugar" in terms of its distinct evocation of a particular sound and style-in this case, a '60s pop-rock ballad, with a driving rhythm, a rich organ backdrop, warm sonic textures, and a sunny, upbeat, romantic lyric in which Santelli underscores the importance of-the necessity for, in fact—small gestures of tenderness to make a relationship hum—"oh, please, just kiss my hand again before you leave"; "oh, please, just smile at me when you drive away"; "oh, please, just touch my face when you walk in the door." The innocence of it all is mesmerizing. Then there's the deceptive "Brown Haired Girl." Sung to her fingerpicked acoustic guitar accompaniment, it has a nursery rhyme quality to it, and Santelli's tiny, little girl vocal maximizes the song's childlike feel, but by the last verse we find the brown-haired girl is someone with whom her beau is cavorting, instead of being with her. Santelli doesn't have Sicilia's big, robust voice; hers is smokey and husky, and limited in range; it's not pretty, but that was once said of Bonnie Raitt, and of Janis Joplin, too, a couple of singers she resembles vocally and in the energy she injects into or, indeed, holds back in her performances. When she reaches the outer edges of her range, as in the burning blues of "Ode to Bill," she gets positively ragged, in fact. But it works, like Janis's ragged edges worked for her and made her urgency more electrifying.

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Christine Santelli, live in Switzerland, 2007

Reversing the conventional wisdom, behind these good women are some good men. Both Sicilia's and Santelli's new albums are produced by Dave Gross, who steers the pair about as well as they could be steered. A righteous guitarist himself, Gross adds rich, atmospheric textures when he steps into an arrangement, especially on Sicilia's record, on which he rolls out sonics ranging from country twang to brittle, lacerating Tele blues runs. As a producer, he makes all the right moves in supporting the artists' visions, giving both exciting aural backdrops and clearly knowing not only when less is more, but when more is needed to spark the settings. Then there's Richard Rosenblatt, Bob Margolin and Chip Eagle, who own the VizzTone label that is home to both Santelli and Sicilia (and to Gross as a solo artist as well). Hats off to them for recognizing what they had stumbled upon when they found these gals, and then for giving them room to speak their minds, in a manner of speaking. They may be sitting on a powder keg when the world at large finds out about Gina Sicilia and Christine Santelli. One suspects they know that, and can't wait for it to happen. More power to them all, I say.
Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024