Photograph of Vala Cupp by Josť Luis Villegas
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|By John Orr
I recently had the distinct pleasure of talking again with Vala Cupp, after a couple of years of no communications. She sounds great and is still doing that blues thing -- still opening for John Lee Hooker at his few gigs ("I'm retired," he says, on his way to one benefit or another), and still gigging with the likes of blues keyboard master Danny Beconcini and other San Francisco Bay Area blues players. And, working on another album.
If you ever get a chance to see one of her gigs, do yourself a favor: Go see her.
Vala Cupp's powerful voice is stunning, and you'd think natural laws would require that it be issued from a body larger than 5-foot-3 and 105 pounds. But on stage or CD, she's a giant.
Cupp also sings with other Bay Area groups, including the Sam Andrew-Vala Cupp Band, and Rock Bottom.
RX for the angry blues: steal a can of green beans.
There she was, singing in front of several hundred other blues musicians and their friends, when her last song was cut off early because someone flubbed, and she was left with a mouthful of verse and nowhere to sing it.
It did. "I feel a little
better," she says later. "I feel like I got
something out of it."
Born in San Luis Obispo, her stage debut was at age 5, in "The Seven-Year Itch," and she started singing in folk- rock bands when she was 14. She was 15 when she first heard a Bessie Smith recording, and the course of the next 15 (or 20?) years of her life was set.
''Well, maybe not necessarily macabre," she says, stopping to think. "But definitely striking or strong tunes. Not tunes that come from a vulnerable viewpoint. Those sappy victim songs make me ill. The strong ones are a kick in the butt to sing, and they're a strong emotional release. Such as 'Any Old Arms,' 'Man-Sized Job,' 'Don't Mess With My Man,' 'Someone Else Is Stepping In' -- those are all fun. They are more colorful lyrically, give you more to work with when evoking a feeling."
Cupp's latest gig is tonight, at JJ's Fifth Annual Blues Festival at JJ's Downtown, where'll she'll be featured by the Michael Osborn Band, who will be joined by John Lee Hooker. Osborn and Cupp are known outside the Bay Area largely because of Hooker: Osborn has played lead guitar for Hooker's Coast-to- Coast Blues Band for 10 years, and Cupp has been the band's warm-up singer for four years. With Hooker they have performed at every major blues festival from New Orleans to Montreux.
Cupp's busy schedule -- besides performing with Coast-to- Coast and the Osborn bands -- includes singing for Upside, a band formed with her day-job co-workers at Gelb Music in Redwood City, and rehearsing a couple of other bands.