“You have long thought that the colour of love was red. But no, that is not at all true. The colour of love is actually bleu. Blue.” Next, the vocalist starts crooning into a pulse ’50s chrome mic as the dreamy sound of Blue Velvet fills the venue. On stage, we’ve got four women, all clad in blue with their pin-up girl hairstyles, accompanied on the drums by a lone – either ecstatic or quite unhappy – male. I present you The Bluebell Sisters, an electrifying ’50s revival band.
Lily Betts, lead singer with a magnetizing stage presence, initiated the Bluebell Sisters project in 2011, bringing together musicians that share a marked interest for jump blues, rockabilly and doo wop music. Subsequently, in May 2015, The Bluebell Sisters released their first album ever, produced by the talented Éric Goulet. And to celebrate the event, the group played a riveting show at the Cabaret Lion d’Or this past Wednesday, May 27th.
To fully grasp the quaint atmosphere of the event, one really needs to have been to the Cabaret Lion d’Or in the first place. Born in Montreal during the lively ’30s, the Lion d’Or has traditionally hosted a variety of shows ranging from vaudeville and comedy to dance and music. Since its restoration in 2002, this cabaret has accommodated many troupes and musicians with a vintage glamour – jazz recitals, burlesque shows, electroswing parties… You name it. The venue itself, with its high ceilings, arched doorways and warm colours, has a very old and sophisticated feel to it. The hazy lighting gives everything a golden hue – especially thanks to the surreal lighting radiating from the candles. The bar is elegant (and luckily quite well-equipped), whilst the bathrooms (a crucial place for all blissfully drunk spectators) are indicated with a ’50s styled neon sign. And although the booze there is rather pricey, a location as refined and old-fashioned as the Lion d’Or is perfect to host any event of a retro nature – especially the performance of a ’50s music tribute band.
For starters, the Bluebell Sisters’ base layer of instrumentals consists of a percussion set, a stand-up bass, a piano, a baritone saxophone and lead vocals accompanied by doo-wop harmonies. However, the band makes sure to spice things up by occasionally adding interesting instruments to their sets, such as an electric guitar, a flute, a trumpet and even a ukulele. When you have so much instrumental variety coupled with skilled jazz musicians, the resulting solos and musical improvisations are quite engrossing.
During the performance, the four front-women of the group had such a great stage chemistry that it really felt as though they were sisters. All smiling brightly, they took turns introducing each song with elements of history and humour, playfully making fun of each other and all seeming incredibly happy to be there. From the start, the girls dynamically succeeding in warming up their audience. Lily Betts (aka Liz Taylor, according to her bio), the sassy lead vocalist, put a lot of intonation into her singing. Her rich voice simply had a life of its own: the listener could just picture her facial expressions by hearing the vocal inflexions. As the coquette sang with notably clear diction and a contagious smile, all eyes were transfixed by this confident entity on stage. I also quite appreciated the stand-up bass player – skilfully plucking a solid melodic line, Blanche occasionally gave her instrument quite the smooth “spin”. The piano soloist, Emily, was simply the master of improvisation, whilst Mary, backup vocalist and sax player, had an adorably cheeky stage presence. And I cannot forget to mention Dave, the steady percussionist who has the remarkable courage of facing four women on his own, in a band. (I guess as a drummer, he doesn’t really need to have his opinions heard anyway, right?)
During their Lion d’Or show, the Bluebell Sisters won the audience over with all the songs from their new album, and a few extras to seal the charm. The three word choruses of songs like Ding Dong Daddy (Wynona Carr, 1955) and Sweetie Pie (Eddie Cochran, 1957) could have driven me absolutely crazy were it not for the masterful instrumental solos and vocal modulations intercut with the refrain. Be that as it may, none of the lyrics in The Bluebell Sisters’ repertoire really deserve a special mention, since ’50s popular music can only be defined as lyrically corny. Empty verses about innocent love, dancing and superficial sadness simply repeat themselves over and over in each song, without any in-depth development. Indeed, one must take into consideration a historical context during which musicians were often more businessmen than artists, thus resulting in simple, catchy pieces with a great mass appeal. In fact, at the time, the music must have felt intolerable for its repetitive plasticity. However, because of their nostalgic sound, musical talent and uniqueness for the 21st century, The Bluebell Sisters pull off the commercial ’50s beautifully.
The Tennesse Waltz (Patti Page, 1950) offered a nice break from the jump blues with its bluegrass quality and gloomy flute solo. The horn section’s vibrant role in Slippin’ & Slidin’ (Little Richard, 1956) would have been worthy of a Benny Goodman ensemble, as the sax and trumpet shared sexy back-and-forth solos. The horns and piano in the catchy Reet Petite (Jackie Wilson, 1956) were also simply orgasmic – a good jazz solo can make anyone shiver at its musical beauty. After the sad Blue Velvet (The Clovers, 1956), the band really livened up the show with Chuck Berry’s Back In the USA (1959); things turned really rockabilly as Lily pranced about like a female Elvis. And the raspy electric guitar in this rendition of the song was just awesome. Cuando Yo Lo Conoci (Los Zafiros, 1963) really reflected the Latin influence on 20th century American music – although the vocalists did not sound Latin in the least, their francophone Spanish was quite charming to hear. Aloa Au ia ‘Oe, an original – the title of which comes from a popular Hawaiian expression for “I love you very much” – was a soft and peaceful piece in which the inclusion of an electric guitar and a ukulele really succeeded in conveying a beach atmosphere.
My personal favourites included the bubbly Bop-a-Lena (Ronnie Self, 1958), where Lily really got to show off her vocal capacities, going from raw to high to sugary sweet. Course à La Mort was quite the groovy original that sounded like a sweet medley between ye-ye and rock’n’roll; Lily felt like a powerful version of the clever Françoise Hardy. Finally, the show ended with Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On (Jerry Lee Lewis, 1957), a glorious way to wrap up a performance. To the whirling of a disco ball, the whole audience of old and young (but mostly old) started vigorously swinging away.
Despite the restriction of smoking indoors, spectators really felt propelled back to the 50s. This was quite a unique and enthralling experience, flawlessly recorded on The Bluebell Sisters’ new album. Cabaret Lion d’Or combined with The Bluebell Sister’s live performance literally spins you backwards in time. The show felt even more uncommon once the following statement dawned on me: how often does one get to hear a Quebec francophone band playing American rockabilly in the 21st century?