Punk rocker of the blues Candye Kane calls herself a “role model for the disenfranchised,” and can construct a good case to that end. For one, she’s an advocate for large-sized women and sex worker rights. Her life story, meanwhile, reads like an inspiring self-rescue from the fringe (and a fruitful breeding ground for the blues): When she was a kid, her father was in prison and her mother was, as she says, “insane”; at 16, she got knocked up and started stripping to bring in extra cash to support her kid; by 1985 – after appearing in several adult films and magazines – Kane found herself immersed in the early Hollywood punk landscape with bands like X, Social Distortion and the Circle Jerks.
“To be a part of that scene was really amazing,” Kane says. “Because I used the money I made as a sex worker for music, I was embraced and considered an anarchist of sorts.”
As a teenage mom from East L.A. on welfare, lacking many marketable skills, Kane saw smut as a means to her desired end.
“I had a giant rack and I really believed I could use the sex business as a stepping stone to the music business,” she says.
Apparently, Kane was right: She has been making her living as a musician now for more than 20 years and was nominated for three Blues Foundation Awards this year. She’s one of a range of musicians with plus-sized personalities appearing at this weekend’s Monterey Bay Blues Festival who will receive long overdue attention given the absence of household names like Buddy Guy or B.B. King, standouts who have starred at previous festivals.
Often dressed in feathers and rhinestones, Kane calls herself a “fat black drag queen trapped in a white woman’s body.”
At the age of 48, Kane puts together live performances that are sizzlingly spicy: Often dressed in feathers and rhinestones, she calls herself a “fat black drag queen trapped in a white woman’s body” and moves and shakes on stage with an infectious élan.
But it’s her Etta James croons, fiery groans and crassly honest lyrics – in songs like “All You Can Eat (and You Can Eat It All Night Long),” “200 Lbs. of Fun” and “Masturbation Blues” – that make Kane a standout among traditional female blues singers.
Kane’s 10th album Superhero – her first since winning a recent bout with pancreatic cancer – is a heartfelt cornucopia of saucy jazz, blues and rockabilly.
“My show took on a new healing aspect after going through [cancer],” Kane says. “I was prepared to triumph over cancer because of all the other adversity I’ve faced in my life.”
Whenever Kane sings the highly personal album’s bookend, “I’m Gonna Be Just Fine,” she feels a sense of empowerment and hopes it can help anyone going through a painful situation. In a way, many of the songs throughout Kane’s 10 albums, like “The Toughest Woman Alive,” are her own positive affirmations.
“My background is so f****d up; songwriting has given me a foundation of self-love that my family life and childhood didn’t give me,” says Kane, who appears Sunday at 4:10pm in the Main Arena. “When I sing these songs 250 days a year on bandstands, I’m really healing myself.”
Chick Willis’ (Friday, 8:50-10:20pm, Garden Stage) name may not ring a bell for many, but the singer/guitarist has been playing the blues for more than 50 years. His bio also tracks like a roadmap on how to write a blues song: He was born in Cabiness, Georgia, in 1934; his daddy was a railroad worker; and Willis learned to play in church.
Willis’ music is granular and his lyrics capture that raw human emotion that has spawned the blues for more than a century. His flavorful “1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Shots of Whisky” is an everyman-story of those days when a couple of beers just won’t do it.
“I got home feeling bad, I thought my woman would help ease my mind/ but that was my woman and my neighbor, in my bed, locked up in a 69.”
It’s not hard to understand why Texas native Ruthie Foster’s (Saturday, 2:10-3:10pm, Main Arena) 2009 album The Truth According to Ruthie Foster was nominated for a Grammy: Her voice wraps soul, jazz and blues into a toxic entity that has the kind of power that turns nonbelievers into believers. Foster’s “Stone Love” has as much soul as a southern Baptist choir and her voice beckons comparisons to Aretha Franklin; the woman can also tame a guitar like John Lee Hooker.
Collectively Candye Kane, Chick Willis and Ruthie Foster represent what the blues are all about: self-expression, perseverance and the need to perform, even if it never leads to Franklin-style fortune and fame. Let’s hope they keep it that way.