Of the uncountable thousands of rock 'n' roll bands on the planet, very few have the gender composition of the Blue Rubys: three women and one man. The combination gives the band a kind of collective sexiness that's unusually complex, and they have a diverse collection of onstage motion styles — the exuberant lead vocalist Nicole Marie gets around quite a bit of the front of the stage with her dancing, while Vickie Hinz wields the bass guitar in a graceful way, and the physical forward projection of rock music is centered on lead guitarist Mark Neff.
The Blue Rubys play fun, romantic, straight-ahead rock — Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would be a reference point — sometimes drawing on the country and rockabilly rhythms that made people dance with abandon to rock 'n' roll in the first place. Just as Elvis Presley turned the sentiment of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" into rock forward motion, so the Blue Rubys adapt another bluegrass standard — the Stanley Brothers' "She's More to Be Pitied than Scolded" (which got started, in 1898, as "She Is More to Be Pitied than Censured"), reinterpreting it as a sassy celebration of barroom nights and good times. Mostly their songs are original, and they've got a certified barroom raver in "Come Waste My Time."
Fueled by the snappy drumming of Michelle Donnelly, the band's music is propulsive enough to fill up a dance floor. They drew interested, uninitiated crowds when I saw them recently at the Elbow Room and then again at TC's in Ypsilanti, but there wasn't quite room for dancers to really do their thing. When the Blue Rubys make their Blind Pig debut on Saturday, March 1, that shouldn't be an issue, and people will definitely be out on the floor. The band is also back at TC's on Saturday, March 15.
But here's the thing — the music has enough subtleties to keep them listening, too. There's almost always some harmony singing happening, and Neff is a guitarist capable of pleasant surprises. The band can move close to modern country or turn toward punk-pop without losing its basic sound, and you get the feeling each individual member is bringing something to the mix. The contrast between Nicole Marie's girl-group vocals and Neff's more full-throated turns in the lead is effective. Several of the musicians have bounced around the local scene for a while: Neff (who like Nicole Marie comes from Chelsea) is a veteran of various local rock and country bands, including the Gigantics, and he says his early background was entirely in country music. Hinz was most recently a member of Chrome Mali.
There is, in short, a lot going on when the Blue Rubys play, and they've boiled it all down to a sharp and compact set of moves. And that makes them a new band to watch.
[Review published March 2008]