With her command of an impressive array of African-American musical idioms, Rhonda Benin could front a soul revue all by herself. But when she throws a party, the veteran East Bay vocalist is determined to share the spotlight. Her third annual “Just Like a Woman” concert celebrating Women's History Month returns to Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Saturday, March 7, with an embarrassment of musical riches (the embarrassment belonging to all those venues and festivals that draw a blank when it comes to booking female instrumentalists).
A founding member of Linda Tillery’s invaluable Cultural Heritage Choir, Benin is a tremendously assured singer who inhabits the celebratory zone where jazz, soul and blues fraternize freely. Looking to showcase an array of Bay Area artists from rising acts to veteran performers, she’s shoehorned into a single evening more than enough talent to power a week-long festival. The personnel ranges from alluring Latin jazz vocalist Alexa Weber Morales, who earned a Grammy in 2013 as a member of the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, to blues guitarist and vocalist Pat Wilder, who’s been gaining attention in recent years with her exciting shows.
The exuberantly stylish Lavay Smith has been proudly swinging the jump-blues banner for more than two decades, while Tiffany Austin is a rising star who decided to concentrate on her music career after graduating from Boalt Hall School of Law. For instrumental prowess, it’s hard to beat the String Divas, a violin trio featuring Tarika Lewis, Sandy Poindexter and India Cooke (a bold improviser whose credits includes performances with Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, and Pauline Oliveros). Benin herself teams up with Wanda Diamond and Darlene Coleman to pay tribute to great female soul singers, both famous and lesser-known.
It takes a supremely well-versed combo to handle all of these genres and grooves with authority, which is why Benin always calls upon the impeccable services of pianist Tammy Hall. A consummate accompanist sought after by many of the Bay Area’s finest jazz and blues vocalists, Hall leads the Lillian Armstrong Tribute Band, featuring Elvin Bishop bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Ruth Price and saxophonist Kristen Strom. The backing ensemble itself is well worth the price of admission.