Live Review: Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Cheryl Arena

The Backyard, Brighton, MA

September 17, 2016

It’s been four months since my last visit to The Backyard. Always a fun house concert venue with an eclectic crowd and delicious variety at the pre-show potluck. The weather also cooperated by providing a cool, comfortable setting for the evening’s festivities.

Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Concert

I had heard Cheryl Arena’s name numerous times but had not yet seen her perform. This seemed like a great opportunity. She has shared bills and the stage with several of the blues-based acts I follow in the Boston area, so even without hearing any of her music before, I was comfortable I’d be pleased. And, indeed, I was. Winner of the Blues Audience Newsletter reader’s poll for most outstanding harmonica player three times since 2009, she does amazing things with the harmonica, a one-woman whirlwind jam session at times. She also wields a quintessential blues voice, the sort you might hear leading the house band at one of the hottest spots on Bourbon Street.

Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Cheryl Arena’s supporting cast was stellar this evening. With Pete Henderson on guitar, Brad Hallen on bass, and Forrest Padgett on drums, the band was Cheryl’s equal step-for-step this evening, and many of the blues numbers turned into extended jam sessions with each instrumentalist showing his wares while Cheryl took her turn  – and often control  – with her harmonica wails.

Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Indeed, Cheryl’s voice is smooth and yet has a sort of smokiness to it, though without the smokers’ cough. Much of the time, the music she performed this evening was as New Orleans as the jambalaya that was part of the potluck at the beginning of the night. Other times, the vocals and the rhythm were more of a blues swing. During the event, she notably dropped in a fun original, “Shave It,” for good measure. Pete Henderson took the lead on a few songs as well, lending the occasional hip counterpoint, providing an appealing occasional variance during the evening. Regardless, by the end of the set, the space in front of the stage was packed with dancers enjoying the evening and participating in the fun atmosphere.

Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

Cheryl Arena & band with Willie J. Laws; photo by Geoff Wilbur

We also were graced with a special treat when Cheryl called to the stage the inimitable Willie J. Laws to join her on guitar and vocals for a couple songs, which began with an exceptional rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

The evening only came to an end out of respect for the neighbors; if it had been up to the crowd of about 100 attendees, the fun would have stretched on much, much longer.

Looking Ahead

The next gigs listed on Cheryl’s website are Tuesday, September 27 through Saturday, October 1 at Jon Gindick’s Harmonica Jam Camp at The Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, MS.

Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Willie J. Laws Band is performing tonight, September 18th, at Glenn’s Restaurant & Cool Bar in Newburyport, MA. (I love Newburyport. I wish I lived closer to it.) He also performs next weekend, Sunday, September 25th with Bruce Bears at The Beehive in Boston and on Saturday, October 15th at the Sandywood Center for the Arts in Tiverton, RI. Check out Willie’s website to keep up-to-date on his concert schedule.

Next up at The Backyard is Amy Fairchild on Friday, October 7th. She’s followed by Julie Rhodes & Sugar Blood Jinx on Saturday, October 15th and Jan Marie & Aaron Shadwell on Saturday, November 19th.

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