Gaye Adegbalola has devoted her career to a very smart, quite ambitious idea. In much the same way that Bernice Johnson Reagon and her group Sweet Honey in the Rock have transformed traditional gospel music, Adegbalola and her group Saffire--The Uppity Blues Women have tried to transform traditional blues into a vehicle for modern commentary about race, gender and age. On her new solo album, "Bitter Sweet Blues," Adegbalola pursues the same crusade.
She nods to her predecessors by remaking the songs of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Nina Simone, and she then applies that musical model to songs about incest, spousal abuse and persistent racism. Several of these songs are painfully serious, but she also comes up with comic spins on the battle of the sexes and the difficulty of stepping out of the closet.
Unfortunately, Adegbalola is neither the singer nor the songwriter that Reagon is. Even if one agrees with her progressive politics, one might still wince at her heavy-handed approach. The bleak assessment of racial progress presented on "Nothing's Changed" is more a polemical speech than a persuasive song. Even when she tries a lighter approach on a song such as "The Dog Was Here First," Adegbalola's thin tone and shaky pitch undermine the song. Nor does it help that the album was produced by Rory Block, a singer-songwriter not known for a subtle touch.
Appearing Friday through Sunday at the Barns of Wolf Trap.
To hear a free Sound Bite from Gaye Adegbalola, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8102. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)