A typical performance from Lady Sunshine and the X Band begins with just the band, laying down a groove that hypes up the crowd. And, man, do they know how to do it. Trading wild sax and trumpet solos over a resonant walking bass and swirling organ, they literally set the stage for Lady Sunshine’s appearance. Having built the tension to a fever pitch, guitarist Slick Rick Humesky announces, “It’s star time!” He introduces Lady Sunshine as “creator of such tunes as ‘Man Trouble’ [horns and cymbals blast a single beat], ‘The Hairdresser’ [blast!], ‘Losin’ Track of Time’ [blast!] . . .” It’s an intro almost worthy of James Brown. And what could be more appropriate for this powerful blues and R&B performer? When Lady Sunshine takes center stage, the crowd knows the party has begun, and she knows how to work it.
It’s no surprise this fourteen-year-old band is a fan favorite at local outdoor festivals. These musicians are so tight, they seem to read each other’s minds. Who can resist dancing along with the horn section’s synchronized shuffle? And when you hear those lowest notes on the baritone sax, the funk catches fire. These veterans know the conventions of their craft and make the most of familiar rhythm-and-blues riffs.
But as good as the X Band is, there’s a reason Lady Sunshine is the star—and not just that she can belt out the blues like only a scorned woman can. Yes, she puts on a show, revving up the crowd and the musicians with her full-bodied vocals. But it’s her original material that takes her beyond a talented genre performer to a modern woman storyteller. She expands the traditional blues composition to reveal complex female characters fed up with philandering husbands, tempting lovers, and men who want only one thing. She is funny and irreverent, sassy and naughty, smart and heartbroken.
“My husband don’t love me; he only want what’s under my dress,” she sings with exasperation. In another song, she’s sarcastic: “There must be somethin’ wrong with your watch, baby—you can’t seem to keep track of time.” She sympathizes with the woman who finds someone else’s lipstick and perfume in her house. But in the next number, she’s a woman with her own weakness: “I won’t tell my husband, if you won’t tell your wife. I’ve got a thang for you, baby. I know you’ve got a thang for me.” Above all, she presents a strong woman undaunted by the burden of the blues.
Lady Sunshine was raised in the Deep South but has been in Ann Arbor since 1975. She and the band have blended traditional southern sounds with Detroit soul and Motown rhythms. They can slow it down for a poignant “At Last, My Love Has Come Along” and rock out for “The Blues Is All Right.” In these hands, it is indeed.
Guy Hollerin’s hosts Lady Sunshine in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn near the University of Michigan on Valentine’s Day, Saturday, February 14.