Kay Kay & the Rays,
The Best Of
(Catfood, 2011)

Kay Kay & the Rays formed in 1997 in Odessa, in West Texas, not known to the larger universe as a blues hot spot. After some success, which included national and international tours, the band folded circa late 2004, owing to what the liner notes refer to cryptically as "family tragedies." Subsequently, Kay Kay Greenwade suffered a debilitating stroke. She and the Rays issued three CDs in the course of the outfit's relatively brief life. (The Rays themselves continue with vocalist and songwriter Johnny Rawls.) If we can judge from The Best Of, Kay Kay and company must have been an electrifying something in live performance. Not that, as we may further infer from the work at hand, they reverted to slouchery in the studio.

An African-American woman of later middle age, Kay Kay was an old-school soul-blues belter of grit and presence, her vocal talents able to set forth an array of emotions, from the standard (love gone wrong) to the not so common (blistering social commentary). Most of the songs are originals, co-written with Rays bass player Bob Trenchard, set to funky, fierce melodies built to be delivered through deep pipes. While Kay Kay undeniably possessed those, she was also a mature performer who was too sure of herself to show off, serving songs that are worth hearing and sometimes even contemplating.

The listener is likely to be struck immediately by the abundant topical content, apparent in the bitter opener "Lone Star Justice," hammering Texas' reactionary politics and brutal legal system (a theme revisited later in "Texas Justice -- Billy's Story"), the caustic "Enron Field," and elsewhere. If you've had your fill of those cliche-choked groaners that trumpet Texas as earthly paradise -- in response, the Austin Lounge Lizards once composed "Another Stupid Song about Texas," which is as funny as it sounds -- consider Kay Kay's songs a corrective, a rare bow to the dark realities experienced by the place's non-white, non-rich citizens. (On the other hand, "Lord Save Me from L.A.," set elsewhere on the national landscape, is no hosanna either.) The rest of the material explores a time-honored subject: the eternal war between men and women, in which Kay Kay proves herself a tough combatant indeed. You might think of her as a slightly funkier Koko Taylor, but her voice, literal and figurative, was its own.

Most of all, Kay Kay & the Rays was a dance band, and the electric guitars, pianos, saxophones, bass and drums that backed her singing cut a hard-swinging, seductive groove more than suitable for drinkin', dancin' and no doubt other activities I will leave to your imagination. If the Rays with Kay Kay will never again crowd a stage, let us be grateful that they left a record -- records, actually -- and Best Of is where you go to hear the kind of sharply executed soul blues bound to sound just as good years from now as it did once and does now.

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 February 2012

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