All set for an encore: Alice Stuart's back, after a blues-song life
Seattle Times staff reporter
For the blues to count, the listener has to feel what the musician feels, travel the same rugged roads she's been on. But in the first set at Murphy's Pub, few seem to know Alice Stuart is even on stage.
As Stuart, 58, gets her rhythm going, twentysomethings laugh, talk and smoke. Older faces look up over pint beer glasses. Some of them know this woman dressed in black T-shirt and jeans is the Alice Stuart, a top blues guitarist with a clear, true voice who slipped from the pages of Rolling Stone magazine into oblivion in 1977.
It's a familiar story of that era. At the height of her career, Stuart turned to cocaine for energy and to overcome a lifelong shyness. Then she couldn't escape.
But instead of being her downfall, it led Stuart to a clear vision of her 6-year-old getting himself up and off to school each morning. She snapped shut her guitar case, put away her passion and found backbone fending for her kids.
"Take it slow and easy, if you wanna get along with me," Stuart sings this night with the conviction of someone who's been there.
It's not easy at 58 to survive on one well-received recent CD, long memories and mostly local gigs in brightly lighted bookstores or oxygen-deprived bars.
Stuart played in all the top venues of the 1960s and '70s. She appeared on national TV. Her songs were covered by Jackie DeShannon and the late Kate Wolf. Meanwhile, music critics lauded her ability to take other artists' work and make it her own creation.
Now, many of those critics say Stuart returns deeper than ever.
After living in the San Francisco area for three decades, Stuart has come home to Seattle, continuing her comeback where it all began.
She opens the Women of the Blues series at Experience Music Project this Saturday. Last month, she drew standing ovations at the prestigious South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, her biggest national event of the new era.
How hard can she push? Can she get back to the top?
"My name's right up there," says Stuart, who still has a country cadence to her voice from growing up in rural Chelan. "If you look at the history of rock 'n' roll in the 1970s, I'm there in all those old books.
"I know why I fell through the cracks. I know why it didn't happen. I didn't have the self-confidence to go that extra step. Now people say, `Oh? Who's that?' "
A long line of doubters
Stuart comes from a long line of women who doubted themselves. She was reared by her mother and aunt, who made good livings but didn't have the surety of city polish.
Being female in the 1950s didn't help. Stuart couldn't work in the orchards or play in garage bands in Chelan without social rebuff.
"It was protecting girls, but it was also not trusting girls to make good decisions," she says from her West Seattle rental house today. "The problem is if you find them untrustworthy, then they are. I never did that with my own kids."
She arrived on the music scene in Seattle knowing 10 folk songs from the "Burl Ives Songbook" and soon was a regular at the U District's vaunted Pamir House, which was just leaving the Beatnik era.
On stage at 1962 World's Fair
By 1962, she'd mastered the guitar enough to hold her own on stage at the Seattle World's Fair and bravely co-host a televised Seattle folk show called "Hootenanny."
But she suffered one of those love breakups "where you just can't stand to see them with anyone else" and took off for California where she got her break at the Berkeley Folk Festival.
"I think I had a freshness," she says. "If I had been raised in the city where there was more competition, I might not have had my own take on things."
From there, her career reads like a who's who of music in the 1970s. She had a brief affair with Frank Zappa as they tried to incorporate her simpler, more emotional music into his complicated cerebral style in the early days of the Mothers of Invention.
With big fuzzy hair and fringed little tops, she appeared as George Carlin's special guest on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1972 and opened for Van Morrison on a worldwide tour in 1975.
Rolling Stone magazine called her a "major talent" and wrote that she sings "with a raw, emotional directness."
She was breaking new ground, fronting an all-male band with authority. Today, Bonnie Raitt, among others, acknowledges Stuart's role in setting the path.
But it was drive and not self-assurance that put her on stage, Stuart says. She had one dimension and that was music.
"I was fine unless I had to talk. I could sing in front of thousands of people, but what did I have to say that anybody might want to hear?"
Still too shy to look people in the eye, she was introduced to cocaine in the early 1970s. It gave her the energy to play five and six nights a week and an exuberance that made her look like she belonged.
She was almost on top.
"It was great," she says, "but then I couldn't get out of it. It was a false confidence."
As quickly as Stuart lets loose of her Fender Stratocaster guitar neck and grabs her half-glasses to read the song sheet in dark Murphy's Pub, her image slips from the oft-wronged lover to the kindly grandmother she soon will become.
The context of the blues
Stuart gets it, reviewers say. Blues musicians are babies until their 40s, says Seattle Times jazz critic Paul de Barros. Stuart understands the social and personal context of the blues.
But this crowd doesn't get it until partway through the second set.
In addition to her regulars, Fred Chalenor on bass and Kevin Cook on drums, Stuart this night pulls up three musicians from the audience, Jef Jaisun on guitar, Jeff Herzog on blues harp and Brian Gewertz sitting in on drums.
Jamming now, Stuart hooks in to the listeners, widens the net of who's listening as this new energy shows off what de Barros calls her "internalized metronomic time, her amazing ability to play right in the pocket."
"I used to love you," she sings. "I used to feel so close to you, honey. Now I don't know who I'm talkin' to."
During her 12-year hiatus, Stuart hardly looked at her guitars. They're not a hobby, she says, they're not something she can pick up, pluck and put aside.
She came up to Seattle in 1991 to play at the Northwest Folklife Festival and a videotape of that performance shows her visibly shaking. But inside, she'd changed, Stuart says now.
She'd gone to college and earned A's. She'd worked two jobs helping put her husband through law school. But her real grounding came from speaking up for her children and feeling their support. She got grit, became more self-assured.
"I knew who I was and what my real feelings were," she says. "I had opinions."
Critics around the country say it shows.
"She gives the impression that she has not lost years of career, but has saved them," David L. Wilson writes in Mountain Messenger.
"She makes it all sound as if she lived every line," writes Joseph Blake of the Victoria (B.C.) Times.
Stuart's next step is a second CD. She needs it to be as good or better than her 1999 release, "Crazy With the Blues," and to have the solid national play of her 1970 album, "Full Time Woman."
She must get in front of twentysomethings on a national tour next year and get them with her. They buy CDs. They go to clubs. They seem to appreciate her music but they have one consistent amazement.
As young men approach, Stuart can mouth the words to their question right along with them. But she doesn't back off from the answer:
"I'm 58, damn it."
Sherry Stripling can be reached at 206-464-2520 or by e-mail at email@example.com.