This is the first story in our new, weekly “Free Summer” series, which will highlight the best of free concerts, exhibitions, festivals and cultural happenings open to the public. Check out WBEZ’s Free Summer Activities Guide for more.
“Am I as loud as I can get?” asked Melody Angel. “Testing, one, two. Testing.”
On a recent afternoon in a West Loop studio, Angel was rehearsing for the first time with a new bass and drummer combo. Volume was an important consideration because the singer, songwriter and guitar ace spent much of the past two years muted while hunkered down due to COVID-19.
Hailed three years ago, pre-pandemic, as “the future of the blues” in an article by Chicago music writer David Whiteis, Angel is preparing for a re-emergence onto music stages. She’ll start with Reggies Rock Club on Friday and double billing at the Chicago Blues Festival Saturday and Sunday. A slate of high-profile performances follows.
The concerts will give a fresh hearing to some of the most personally and socially powerful songs Angel has ever written, from her 2020 album She Black, which digs hard into the despair she felt following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that year. Chicago has a tradition of potent blues women, but Angel modernizes the notion, bringing new ideas and a millennial vitality to a genre that can seem ossified.
“This Blues Fest is like the kickoff of my doing shows on a regular basis,” said the 31-year-old Bronzeville resident, who was reluctant to perform during the pandemic due to the risks of the virus.
“You’re talking about somebody who’s never said no to a gig,” she said with a laugh. “If somebody called me for something, I would drop everything to go perform. And so it was really foreign to me to have to weigh these big ramifications.”
What she learned is that she wanted the money and the feeling of community she gets out of live performance less than she wanted to risk bringing the virus back to her mother, and manager, Stephanie Crystal, or to her young niece and nephew.
“It was gut-check time,” she said. “And I realized a lot about myself over this time – that I could sacrifice very much for my family and the people around me, if it mattered.”
She performed at some outdoor shows last summer and one indoor gig that she recalls, she said, at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. But by the time the indoor concert season came back around, so did a new COVID variant and she pulled back.
She was missed, said Tom Marker, the WXRT and WDCB blues deejay who’ll be on stage to help kick off Blues Fest on Thursday.
“I think she’s magnificent,” Marker said. “She’s got a really strong voice, and I mean that in a couple of ways: the way her singing voice sounds and the things that she talks about. She’s an outstanding guitar player. She doesn’t always do this, but she can play, like, Jimi Hendrix style. She’s a very, very welcome and necessary part of the Chicago blues scene.”
About that voice: Angel used some of her personal pandemic down time to write and record She Black, which incorporated not only her response to the Floyd and Taylor killings but to the protests that followed.
“Can’t go here, can’t go there / There’s no justice, there’s no fair,” says the chorus to the title track.
“I don’t know if people really understand the grief that Black people as a whole were going through in 2020,” Angel said. “It was a very dark time. And we grieve like it’s our family every time we see somebody on the news get gunned down. On top of that, you’re in a pandemic, and you’ve got people dying in astronomical numbers within your community. We were also out marching for justice. And so I was in a lot of pain in 2020.
“That whole album was my way of getting everything off my chest. She Black was dedicated to Breonna Taylor, because she’s no longer with us. And the reason is because she’s Black.”
“To be a Black woman, you have to live with that reality that you live in a place where you could be laying in your bed, and the police could come in and take your life, and nothing would be done about it. There’s another song on the album called Invisible Girl, which is along those same lines of living your life and seeing the value of your life – but America doesn’t see the value in your life.”
It is, she said, “just a lot to carry. And working on that album allowed me to release all of that pain and frustration.”
With some of that emotion on record and out in the world, she was able to make a different kind of record for the just-released, Foxy, Angel said. “I was very much in a better mind-state, and it’s basically just me introducing myself to everybody: This is me. This is what I think about love and life and my self-esteem and all of that.”
Angel cuts a striking figure, whether on stage or in rehearsal. On this day at the Music Garage, she wore black tights and a Purple Rain T-shirt, a nod to her idol. Another in her pantheon, Jimi Hendrix, stared out from a sticker plastered to her purple Fender Stratocaster.
With such a presence, you can see why people might consider her for acting roles. Before the pandemic, she started a promising side career by appearing in two prestigious Chicago plays that earned glowing reviews. She was cast as the musician in Goodman Theatre’s Father Comes Home from the War (2018) and then as one of the core ensemble in Court Theatre’s 2019 production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
It was acting that largely got her through during the past two years, Angel said. She did voice-over work and got her first big TV commercial for Verizon.
“I actually played a blues artist playing music on the corner,” she said. “They have me on the corner with my amp and my guitar, and basically they just drive past me as I’m playing and a train is going behind me. It was right up there on Wabash, over there by Buddy Guy’s (club), actually.
“But it was a national commercial, my first national commercial. And that’s why, financially it just kind of saved my life.”
Recording the rehearsal so she could listen back to it later, she was direct and comfortable with her bandmates, drummer Aaron Smith and bassist Jeremiah Hunt, both of whom she had played with before. Indeed, when Hunt figured out in the middle of the trio working through Bad, Bad Seed that he’d been playing the wrong tune, Angel laughed.
She stopped the action in the midst of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Cold Shot, one of two covers that she’ll open her shows with before getting to her deep catalog of originals. (Beyond the Blues Fest, upcoming shows include the Evanston Starlight Concert series on June 14, Aurora’s Blues on the Fox on June 18, and the Vancouver Island Musicfest July 8 in British Columbia, Canada.)
“It’s just kind of falling off,” she told the band about their first attempt at Cold Shot. “The stops still need to be there because I’m working off of the stops, and then it’ll build up to” – she echoed Vaughn’s famous guitar riff from the tune, then sang – “‘I really meant I was sorry …’”
Her love for Prince seems like a kind of destiny now – almost as much as her musical name, which she assures people is the one on her birth certificate – but it wasn’t always easy.
At Bloom High School in Chicago Heights, “I was not popular at all, because I listened to nothing but rock music, and I was just a very different little Black girl,” she said. “And I skateboarded too so I remember ‘Kick, Push’ by Lupe Fiasco being very important to me as a song.”
She earned a marketing degree from Columbia College and worked on and off as a personal trainer, she said, but primarily she stayed true to her vision for a music career.
A key moment for her was getting accepted into the Chicago blues scene, which didn’t happen until her mom sent a YouTube link of Angel covering Big Mama Thornton’s Ball and Chain to Rosa’s Lounge founder and owner Tony Mangiullo.
“Within like 30 seconds of the YouTube video,” Mangiullo recalled, “I just called and said, ‘Bring her over. Thursday night is my jam night’… There was no question about her singing, her guitar and her songwriting, and her whole persona – and her sensitivity to today’s facts of life.”
A regular Thursday gig at the influential club followed, and that led her to becoming a Blues Festival regular, beginning in 2016. A few years later, Angel was featured on the cover of Whiteis’s book, “Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago.”
While some people think her career started with Rosa’s and the Chicago blues world, Angel said that misses the fact that she was playing out a lot before, mostly rock clubs, and had already played overseas. But it was never an easy path.
“I’ve been told to my face by record industry people that, you know, I’m not a sellable thing,” she said. “Like, it would be better if I was a white girl, it would be better if I was a man. But a Black woman playing electric guitar lead … and not playing like little soft acoustic songs or R&B straight up, then, you know, that’s not sellable. I just fight against it and, and still end up on stages that they can’t believe I’m on.”
If you go: Melody Angel plays the Chicago Blues Festival’s Pritzker Pavilion stage on Saturday, June 11 at 5:15 p.m. and its Bronzeville Blues neighborhood stage, at 4433 S. St. Lawrence Ave., Sunday, June 12 at 1:20 p.m. Free of charge, Blues Fest runs June 9-12 in Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph St., and at several other sites across Chicago. To find our full guide of recommended free summer events, click here.
Steve Johnson is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
Corrected: Angel plays Reggies Rock Club on Friday, June 10.