Celebrating her 70th birthday, Linda Tillery is taking over Freight & Salvage Friday and Saturday with a far-flung roster of guest artists. There are surprises on tap, but the announced musicians joining her for the celebration represent sounds from Venezuela to the Mississippi Delta, from klezmer to spirituals and soul. It’s an opportunity for Tillery to join forces with friends after a difficult though productive year.
“I have multiple health issues, but I’m pushing full steam ahead,” Tillery said. “It keeps me going. I have to be careful not to run myself down. I don’t take on as many gigs as I used to.”
A major force on the Bay Area music scene since she joined the Berkeley rock ‘n’ rhythm band The Loading Zone in the late 1960s, Tillery has collaborated with a vast array of disparate artists over the years. The 70th Birthday Extravaganza opens Friday with her Cultural Heritage Choir, the long-running vocal and percussion ensemble that draws on the entire continuum of African-American music. Jackeline Rago’s jazz-steeped Venezuelan Music Project and the klezmer combo Kugelplex round out the program. She’s sung song in Yiddish with Kugelplex before, but on Friday she’s joining the group for Dan Cantrell’s “The Hungarian Spiritual Suite.”
“The musicians in that band are very high level,” Tillery said. “It’s just a blast working with them.”
For Saturday’s program she’s delving into the blues with the charismatic blues troubadour Eric Bibb, bassist Ruth Davies, and a rising young star Brett “Jailbait” Brandstatt, who’s featured widely on the new album Tillery is celebrating, It’s A Mighty World.
She first heard him play three years ago at Jazz Camp West. Somehow, the San Jose native has absorbed a deep feeling for the blues, and when Tillery heard his guitar from a distance she was struck by the conviction of his sound. “I thought wow! who’s that?” she recalled. “He was playing more Piedmont style, and it sounded like there was an 80-year-old black man from South Carolina sitting on the porch.”
Thunderstruck to discover a 17-year-old white boy producing that sound, she called him over and sought to uncover the roots of his connection to the blues. “I asked him, ‘What do you know about this music? You sound more authentic than most people who claim to be blues artists.’ When you talk to Brett, first thing that becomes apparent is that he gets that there’s a connection between the people who created the music and the music itself. The songs don’t write themselves. He’s really done his homework on these ancient blues artist, R.L. Burnside, Lead Belly, Rev. Gary Davis. He’s taken their individual stories and connection to the music into his consciousness. He really sounds like someone who believes in the music.”
A week after that first encounter, Tillery invited him to sit in on her Jazz Camp faculty concert and she was blown away. Dubbing the teenager “Jailbait,” she ended up inviting him to perform with her at the Kate Wolf Festival, where Ruthie Foster and Eric Bibb “were both knocked out by this kid,” she said.
Eager to introduce him to new audiences, Tillery features him widely on It’s A Mighty World. She might be pacing herself these days, but Tillery is still mixing it up, contributing her boundless soul to the Bay Area scene.
“Life is short,” she said. “Do it all. Or at least do what you can.”
Hindustani slide guitar master Poly Varghese makes his Berkeley debut Sunday at the Back Room. A disciple of Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhat, he’s an expert on the rarely seen 22-string mohan veena, a combination of lap slide guitar and sitar. A supremely lyrical player known for extended melodic invention, Varghese also performs Sept. 15 at the Yoga Society of San Francisco.
On Sunday, singer Jill Rogers will be in her usual spot center stage with the East Bay alt-country combo Crying Time, singing songs associated with country music legend George Jones at Freight & Salvage. And on Wednesday, she’ll be a few doors up the street at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall, celebrating her debut album under her own name, Happy as a King, an excellent session of venerable American Songbook standards. She’s joined by a redoubtable quintet featuring guitarist John Finkbeiner, organist Lorenzo Farrell, and the long-running Lost Trio, the inveterately creative collective combo with drummer Tom Hassett, bassist Dan Seamans, and saxophonist Phillip Greenlief.