The Road Rules
The Refugees love touring – and detonating rock stereotypes.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
No, the name of the band has nothing to do with The Fugees – different generation, different style, different ethnicity.
And even though The Refugees are made up of three respected female musicians – Cindy Bullens, Wendy Waldman and Deborah Holland – they’re not part of the post-Lilith Festival “women’s music’’ circuit, either.
Chatting from her car on her way to pick up Waldman in Philadelphia, Bullens (who lives in Maine these days) has done everything from work as a backup singer to Elton John (her first gig), to going on the road with Bob Dylan’s raucous Rolling Thunder Review. She is clearly relishing her part in the new group, which plays Monterey this week in the wake of their debut album, Unbound (Wahubo Records).
“I’ve known both of them for years,” Bullens says. “We met up in Nashville at a songwriter’s festival and later, Deborah e-mailed me to ask if we could do a few gigs. But the first time we sang together, I knew it wasn’t just going to be something in the round – where each singer did a set. I knew this was a band.”
Each member has a distinguished resume.
Waldman’s first album was honored as the “singer-songwriter debut” of the year by Rolling Stone in 1973 and she’s been recording and producing music ever since. Holland, former lead singer of Animal Logic, with Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke, has been putting out quirky albums of her own material, with songs like “Bad Girl Once, Soccer Mom Now’’ and “Theory of Relativity’’ (“I’m a poor girl by Bill Gates’ standards; I’m a rich bitch, through a homeless person’s eyes.’’) Think Mose Allison meets Blossom Dearie, with a feminist twist.
“We’re not trying to be part of any genre,” Bullens avows. “We decided to do this album acoustically, without drums, for a reason. We’re just three people who write songs and play a multitude of instruments – weren’t Crosby, Stills and Nash doing that, too?
“If you see us in concert, each of us is completely different. I guess I’m the one who calls myself a rocker, but you know what – Wendy’s a damn good rocker, she’s just been pinned as a singer-songwriter, and Deborah was the former lead singer for Animal Logic. She’s great, and a little off-kilter.
“I like to flirt, I like to tease, I like to bring those boys right down to their knees,’’ the ladies sing in “Stickin’ With My Baby’s Love,’’ although they’re having so much fun with the seduction game that you’re not entirely convinced they believe in the song’s title.
“We’re three middle-aged women having a great time being exactly who we are,’’ Bullens says. “All that ‘women’s band’ stuff is definitely off my radar. It’s just another box people want to put you in musically and even personality-wise. We’re as much a band as the 21-year old boy rockers.’’
She likes to live in the present, not the past, but Bullens does allow herself to be drawn out a bit on her Elton John days.
“I crashed a party where I knew Elton was going to be at Cherokee Studios in L.A.,’’ she laughs. “I was a gofer who used to hang out at the studio and get coffee for people like Ringo Starr and the Doobie Brothers. But they were giving a press party for Neil Sedaka, who was on Rocket Records and I knew Elton was going to be there.
“Elton was the first person to walk up to me and we chatted. Nobody kicked me out, and a few minutes later, this woman walked up to me and asked what I was doing for the next two months. The next thing I knew I was on the road with him touring for Rock of the Westies and singing back-up for him on ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.’ Then he played on the title track of my album Dream 29 on a red piano at Caesar’s Palace.”
These days, although each of The Refugees also have individual projects going, she says they’re committed to the band.
“We did about 50 gigs in 2008 and expect to do at least that many in 2009 – maybe more.”
They each have MySpace pages and are “totally into new media,” Bullens says. “All of us are internet-tech-savvy, and want to make sure we’re up to speed, as much as anyone can be, with everyting that’s going on. We’ve been moving up on the Americana and roots radio charts for the last six months, so as far as we’re concerned, we’re embracing the whole thing. Bring it on.
“We’re happy to bring our music to folks in any way we can but when you play a gig, people want something in their hands. We sign nearly every CD at our gigs – we have baby boomers, and their sons and daughters, 20-somethings, men and women in our audiences. Why narrow it down?
“We played Calgary, in Alberta, last fall, and one woman came up to us after the show and said, “You know, this is the happiest I’ve ever walked out of a concert.’’
Or, as Wendy Waldman’s lovely ballad, which closes the new album, puts it: “Just when I thought our chance had passed, you go and save the best for last.”
“It’s nice to have all this going on at our age,” Bullens says. “To be back on the road, as they say. In the van.”
THE REFUGEES play 8pm Friday, March 13, at Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey. $10. 375-5483.