I’ve got this friend who knows how much I like The New Yorker, but who is also aware that I don’t subscribe because I can’t seem to keep up with weekly magazines, so he passes on a stack to me after he’s piled up a few. When I get them, I thumb through each issue’s table of contents and fold them open to the articles I intend to read, relegating the others to the general-use stack in my classroom.
One morning, a few weeks ago, I grabbed one of those folded-back New Yorkers and hurried to the school bus stop for my monthly duty. I was flipping the pages and had just finished reading “Liberal-in-Chief,” Adam Gopnik’s piece about President Obama, when this woman’s stunningly solemn face appeared. Her glare was framed by a jet-black mod hairdo, and she was surrounded by tall wildflowers. This was Adia Victoria, the text below it explained.
Ever on the lookout for new music, I went home that afternoon and downloaded her only album, Beyond the Bloodhounds, and gave it a listen. Her scratchy-sweet, but sometimes dour voice betrayed a twinge of a Southern-cum-British accent, and the grim guitar-driven band came off as a cross between Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Black Keys— blues-influenced but not exactly blues. Between the music and the darkly playful cover image of the singer sitting girlishly in a hospital gown and striped stockings, my interest was piqued, especially after I read the bio on her website:
Any forces that tried to tell the former ballet dancer/telemarketer/French major to play small, failed. Growing up in Spartanburg, South Carolina and raised in a strict, Seventh Day Adventist atmosphere, she knows about feeling less than whole. But following her inner voice, and creating a new life for herself in New York, Atlanta, and now Nashville (with stints in Paris and Germany) honed a self-assured voice that resists the outside gaze.
Continuing to browse her website, I saw that she was finishing up some US dates and was soon headed for Europe. I’ve missed her, I thought. But I hadn’t— one of those last dates was at Saturn Birmingham, about eighty miles from where I live, on a Wednesday night, and was sponsored by one of my favorite Alabama breweries, Good People. (If you’ve not tried Good People Brown, you ought to.)
I asked my buddy Robert if he wanted to go, and we hit the road that evening, stopped at Bistro Two Eighteen for a bite to eat, then followed the railroad tracks to Avondale to the hear the show. As we walked up a side street toward Saturn, I looked at my watch – 7:57, three minutes ’til showtime – and because I’m getting cynical and a little intolerant in middle-age, I said out loud, “I don’t hear any music. That’s not good.” Robert laughed at me, and we headed through the coffee shop, past the youngsters in horn-rimmed glasses, to the bar.
It was 8:01, and waiting on my beer, I asked the bearded bartender, “Do you think the show’s going to start on time?” By now, Robert was laughing out loud at my curmudgeonly frustration. (I’m still traumatized by a Son Volt show at Five Points South in the mid-1990s, when the ticket said 7:00 PM and the band went on at 12:30 AM, by which point I had had far too much George Dickel.) He said there would be an opening act, but Adia Victoria should start about nine, and – I’m sure, sensing my old-ness – then said, “We’ll get you out of here by eleven.”
I knew better than blow any and all of my cool-points by saying, It’s a school night, dude, I’ve got a long drive after this . . . You’ll probably sleep ’til two tomorrow!
The bad news is that the opening act – a rapper from California named Phillip the Human – had the charisma of flat Coca-Cola and was embarrassingly bad. So bad, in fact, that I was actually embarrassed for him, as he seemed genuinely confused about why he couldn’t rile the small crowd . . . at all.
The good news is that Adia Victoria came out right after him— and she was incredible! Unlike the somewhat-catatonic look of her album cover, the singer came out in a black dress, sporting a pulled-up mass of hair a la Lisa Bonet in Angel Heart, and started tuning a white semi-hollow body guitar as her band got themselves set. Watching her tune up was itself a scene of raw power.
Though her one-hour set only consisted of the tracks on her album, plus a spooky off-kilter cover of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues,” Adia Victoria ripped it up live in a way that her album doesn’t. While the album is quite good, the live set was so much better, louder, harder. The distortion on the guitars made the crashes crashier, and the thickness of electric piano added depth to whole sound. “Dead in the Eyes” was more harsh, and “Mortimer’s Blues” – about her recently deceased cat, she told us – was more eerie. She and her band filled that small, low-ceilinged room with the blues.
The only downside of Adia Victoria’s show was its brevity. She played for about an hour, and while that appealed to my old-man need to get in the bed before midnight, I could have easily listened for another hour. Toward the end of the show, she reminded us that Beyond the Bloodhounds was for sale on CD and on vinyl in the back of the room, admonishing that she’d be back there too and would see us if we left without buying a copy. Luckily, I’ve already got mine, so I paid my bar tab and hit road for home.
Adia Victoria is another one of these acts whose presence make me wonder what has gone wrong with the mainstream. Here is woman who has been written up in Rolling Stone and The New Yorker as one to watch, but watch her where? As with late-starting bands and overpriced beers, I am also growing increasingly impatient with bad music— and even more impatient with mainstream acceptance of it. Thankfully, these indie gems are still there, buried among the fool’s gold in the mountain of music. As Adia Victoria herself sung, that we have to search for them is a “howlin’ shame.”