The blues has always been sodden in gloom. Even the late gospel vocalist Mahalia Jackson once said, “Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit yelling for help.” But that’s not true for Twyla Birdsong.
“I’m rooted in the blues, that’s what really gets my heart pumping and brings me joy,” said Birdsong, who is performing a unique event this weekend at Gregory’s Ice & Smoke. The Lansing-based songstress has gigged around Michigan for the past two years, playing solo or with The Hoopties, her blues group that released its debut disc “It Ain’t Never Been Easy” last year. Birdsong’s throwback resonant voice is similar to vintage soul originators like Ruth Brown, Etta James and Irma Thomas, but with bits of more contemporary smooth R&B singers like Joss Stone and Anita Baker. However, the 40-year-old singer’s roots are deep in gospel.
“I grew up in the church, and my mom is a minister,” she said. “I was about 8 years old when I started in the youth choir, but I was very much in the background. The first time I led a song I was about 16.”
While sitting at the Gone Wired Café, Birdsong, who is also the mother of three teenagers, summed up her diverse sound.
“I want it to be the gospel-soul feel of the blues,” she said. “I’m always rooted in the blues, but the gospel has to come out.”
When Sam Cooke transitioned from gospel to secular in the mid-‘50s, he caught some grief from both sides. Birdsong doesn’t want to fall into a similar trap, saying that while she does have a spiritual side, she is opened-minded about playing music.
“When I first started singing the blues I performed at the Temple Club a lot,” she said. “There was a lot of stigma around that because it used to be a church, people didn’t want to come. But I firmly believe the place is the people. If you have good people in there with good energy, that’s what matters. I want to expose the music to everyone.”
Birdsong organized this weekend’s event, called “An Elegant Evening with Twyla Birdsong,” which she says is meant to outdo a routine night at the bar. She will be backed by Ed Fedewa on bass, Mike Eyia of Orquesta Ritmo on guitar, Clarence “Booney” Dottery of Soul Xpress on drums, and saxophonist Brian Lange. Local guitarist/vocalist Elden Kelly opens the show.
“A few years ago I went to Gregory´s because (Lansing saxophonist) Phil Denny was playing,” Birdsong said. “I was sitting there with a couple of singer friends and I said, ‘Ooh, this would be nice. We should do a Cotton Club-type show here. It could have a Billie Holiday vibe, with some blues and jazz.’ Then recently I re-watched ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ and got inspired by that. And on top of everything, Gregory’s is a great soul food restaurant and not many people know that.”
But Birdsong eventually offered up a more diva-inspired motive for booking the sophisticated night of music.
“A while back I’d purchased this beautiful gown,” she said. “I never go anywhere but I wanted to get it out just in case. I figured people would enjoy getting dressed up and having a night on the town with dinner and a show.”
An Elegant Evening with Twyla Birdsong
with special guest Brian Lange
Saturday, 6 p.m.-9 p.m.
Gregory´s Ice & Smoke
2510 N. Martin Luther King Blvd., Lansing. $15.
For tickets call 517-894-5137.