Talent scouts eager to find artists ready for the big time would be wise to make their way to Freight & Salvage on Sunday, where vocalist Rhonda Benin’s annual all-women showcase returns with a new cast of spotlight-ready musicians.
On pandemic hiatus for the past two years, Just Like a Woman has established a remarkable track record since Benin presented the first concert in 2014. Focusing on perennially underappreciated masters (Lady Bianca), mid-career artists who’ve worked mostly in the background (Ashling “Biscuit” Cole), and rising stars (Valerie Troutt), the first program set a daunting standard, though Benin has continued to expand the template.
Featuring jazz guitar master Mimi Fox, powerhouse New Orleans vocalist Michelle Jacques, old-time/bluegrass multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Evie Ladin, jazz chanteuse Deborah Winters, funk ‘n’ jazz singer Mz. Dee, and Naté the Soulsanger, this year’s lineup reflects the stylistic diversity that’s come to define the revue.
Benin’s concept is that each artist brings in fans, providing those listeners an opportunity to experience musicians with whom they’re probably unfamiliar. “The whole point of the show is to put people on that stage working in different genres,” said Benin, a well-traveled jazz and blues vocalist who was a founding member of Linda Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir, an a cappella ensemble that encompassed the entire history of African American music.
The first time I heard powerhouse vocalist Miko Marks was at Benin’s 2017 Just Like a Woman showcase. Her most recent album had come out a decade before, and her career was in the doldrums. In the past two years, Marks has earned a flood of national attention as a Black female groundbreaker on the country music scene.
The same edition of Just Like a Woman featured Lilly Ellis, scion of an illustrious Berkeley musical clan, making her performance debut at the age of 8 belting out “Alright, Okay, You Win.” Veteran songwriter Kaitlin McGaw happened see the video and recruited Ellis for the Alphabet Rockers project Rise Shine #Woke, which was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Benin, who grew up in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles and is deeply versed in Black popular music, has a proven ear for artists who need to be heard (though she puts it in optical terms). “I’ve got a good eye for what’s a hit and who can go,” she said. “I want to make sure some attention gets paid to people who don’t get mentioned. I presented Terrie Odabi when she was coming up. Also Miko Marks, Tiffany Austin, and Lillian Ellis as a little girl.”
In some cases Benin has followed an artist from a distance. Naté the Soulsanger is part of an under-the-radar soul scene rich with talent, “a whole group of soul-singing girls who’re doing things,” Benin said. “When I see Narada Michael Walden featuring Naté at Throckmorton Theatre, I know something is going on.”
In other cases, Benin has deep, longstanding ties to the artists she features. Evie Ladin and her husband, Keith Terry, are dear friends who helped keep Benin’s spirit up during the pandemic, when she was dealing with cancer and undergoing extensive chemotherapy.
“She and Keith have quietly supported me in the last few years, coming over and singing in the yard,” said Benin, who Terry coaxed to perform at his 70th birthday party concert at the Freight in November.
“I just watch Evie with all her talent and her soulfulness, her singing, dancing and she’s a multi-instrumentalist, and think everybody needs to see her with all of her talent.”
Effectively showcasing a diverse roster of singers requires a highly versatile band, and Benin has built the show on pianist and music director Tammy Hall, a Bay Area treasure who has spent the past few decades accompanying the region’s most celebrated jazz vocalists, including Denise Perrier, Kim Nalley, Tiffany Austin and Benin.
Veteran blues bassist Ruth Davies, who’s spent years touring with heavyweights like Charles Brown and Elvin Bishop, anchors the band with her rhythm section partner Ruth Price, a drummer with a commanding feel for jazz, blues and R&B idioms. Well-traveled tenor saxophonist Kristen Strom provides lyrical counterpoint for the singers.
Benin’s knack for producing well-conceived, talent-laden events has not gone unnoticed. The City of Berkeley recently called upon her services to produce a Mother’s Day concert at the Berkeley Rose Garden. She’s lined up another stellar cast with Davies on bass, Strom on saxophones, Count Basie Orchestra pianist Glen Pearson, and Deszon Claiborne on drums supporting harpist/vocalist Destiny Muhammad and vocalist Margo LeDuc. Benin is also on the program, and Nicholas Bearde, the suave crooner who spent nearly two decades with Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra, is the cherry on top.
From Seaside to North Beach, Benin has started gigging again in 2022 after the long period of isolation, but Just Like a Woman represents her true calling, elevating her musical peers and putting on a show.
“It feels good to get back to my work,” she said. “It feels good that people are responding after a two-year hiatus. I get to celebrate being alive. It’s good for me and it’s good for everyone.”