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ll Dana Fuchs has to do is sing. All it takes is one note from those celebrated lips and clocks stop, crowds snap to attention, hearts beat like bass drums and neck-hair tingles. It’s often been said that the Florida-born front-woman could sing the phone directory and still hold her listeners spellbound. True enough, but in 2013, when Dana applies that extraordinary voice to the classic songs from her third album Bliss Avenue, you’ll realize that you’re in the presence of once-a-generation greatness.
Released in July 2013 on Ruf Records, Bliss Avenue is the most honest and unflinching studio album in Dana’s back catalogue. Co-written with her long-time wingman and guitarist, Jon Diamond, these songs weren’t simply tracked in box-ticking fashion, but wrenched from the depths and laid down to tape without gloss or polish. “If there’s one line that sounds thrown away or dialed in, it has to be redone,” says Dana. “Every word needs to express the emotion of the song or no one will get it and it leaves me cold.”
The resulting album is a window into the singer’s worldview, drawing on everything from the tragic loss of her beloved brother to the loneliness of life on the road. “I’m excited for people, especially those fans who have stuck so close with me, to hear Bliss Avenue,” says Dana, “because I really purged my soul in a starker, more naked way, both lyrically and musically.
“I got so emotional, to the point of tears,” she admits, “singing several of these tunes that are so close to home, like So Hard to Move, Bliss Avenue, Long, Long Game and Vagabond Wind. I want this album to reach people in a way that’s meant to be inclusive. Not like, ‘Here’s my world and my story,’ but rather, ‘Here’s my story, can you relate…?”
Safe to say, you will. It’s impossible not to be reeled in, both by the songwriting and execution of Bliss Avenue. Led from the front by Dana’s smoke-and-honey battle cry, these twelve new cuts are also a canvas for some of the best musicians on the US scene, with Diamond’s powerhouse guitar offering intelligence and groove, Jack Daley delivering seismic bass, keys wizard Glenn Patscha working the Hammond, Wurlitzer and piano, drum god Shawn Pelton keeping the train on the track – plus atmospheric background vocals from the incredible Tabitha Fair and Nicki Richards.
Locking in with Dana and Jon’s self-production, this musical dream team flew across tracks that take in flavors including soul, roots, blues and southern rock. “I realized that you have to hire the best musicians to help you reach your vision,” she nods. “It’s such a collaborative effort.”
It’s been a long road to Bliss Avenue. The youngest of six children, Dana was raised in rural Florida in a family home that rang out with music. Back in those formative days, influences were around every corner, from the rumble of heavy rock played by her siblings in the garage, through the Ray Charles and Hank Williams platters on her parents’ turntable, to the strut of ’70s and ’80s funk that ruled the schoolyard.
By age 12, she’d added another ingredient to the melting pot, joining the First Baptist Gospel Choir in a small black church on the outskirts of town to sing, shout and holler the Lord’s praises.
Even then, Dana’s musical appetite was insatiable, and when fronting a local band at a roadside Holiday Inn no longer scratched the itch, the singer informed family and friends in Florida of plans to become the latest aspirant star to take on New York. It was a brave move – and briefly seemed a foolish one, as 19-year-old Dana found herself scrapping for survival on Manhattan’s Lower East Side – but the tragedy of her older sister Donna’s suicide had a galvanizing effect, and she duly hit the city’s blues-jam circuit like a freight train.
It was at one of these jam nights that fate smiled, instigating Dana’s first meeting with Diamond: an established NYC axman who had already toured with the chart-topping Joan Osborne. Sensing musical sparks, they formed the Dana Fuchs Band, and quickly built a buzz, drawing punters to the Apple’s blues clubs and holding their own on bills that featured titans including John Popper, James Cotton and Taj Mahal. With the band rocking until 3am four nights a week, this was an apprenticeship at the sharp end, and it was here that Dana honed both her astonishing vocal power and built the loyal following who identified her nascent brilliance.
And yet, it wasn’t until two years later – when Jon and Dana extended their live chemistry to a fruitful writing partnership – that the band achieved true lift-off. Armed with a solid body of original material, they drew packed houses at hot-spots like Arlene’s Grocery, The Mercury Lounge, The Stephen Talkhouse and B.B. King’s Blues Club, while sharing bills with such national acts as Little Feat, Marianne Faithfull and Etta James.
Word of Dana’s talent even spread to off-Broadway, and when she was invited to audition by the producers of the hit Janis Joplin musical “Love, Janis,” a few bars of Piece Of My Heart, plus her industrial-strength charisma, confirmed they had their lead. Playing Joplin four nights a week proved an effective shop-window, catching the eye of renowned director, Julie Taymor and leading to a subsequent turn as Sadie in Sony’s highly acclaimed Beatles movie, Across The Universe. With her vocals featured prominently on the platinum-selling soundtrack, this was a project that saw Dana Fuchs Band shows bolstered by a whole new audience, who duly left to spread the word.
Riding high, the band released its debut CD, Lonely For A Lifetime, in 2003, and found both press and fans receptive to a sound that drew on vibes from ’60s Stax/Volt R&B, Lucinda Williams and the Rolling Stones, while hinting at the lyrical eloquence of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. She might have belted it out in a voice inspired by Etta James, Otis Redding, Bobby Bland, Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples, but on songs like Strung Out, Lonely For A Lifetime and Bible Baby, Dana was handling sensitive topics. “These tracks are about addiction and religious hypocrisy,” she noted, “and like all the tracks on the album, deal with subjects that I have a deep personal experience with.”
It was one hell of an opening gambit, but Lonely For A Lifetime was topped by Dana’s sophomore release, Love To Beg in 2011. Tightening the songwriting and raising their performance through the roof, this second release from the Dana Fuchs Band made international waves, with the UK’s Classic Rock crowning it ‘Blues Album of the Month’, R2 magazine noting that she has “talent simmering towards detonation”, and global fans recognizing that in a world of clinical TV talent shows and corporate pop, here was a band that meant every word.
So how do you follow that…? Quite simply, with Bliss Avenue: a third album that shoots for the stars, runs with fans’ expectations and channels the blues while simultaneously defying them. “While the album’s content may seem dark,” explains Dana, “I’m not in a dark place at all, but rather a very hopeful place for music, spirituality and mankind. It often takes looking into the dark soul to see the light…”
- Henry Yates, Classic Rock Magazine UK