Before I saw Cecilia Low’s They Say She’s Different I’d never heard of Betty Davis. I had no idea what to expect. Luckily, walking into the elegant Big House theatre at Gasworks was like stepping into a time capsule. Low and co. had captured the atmosphere of the 70s and brought it to the 2015 Fringe Festival.
The band’s equipment is splayed out on the stage. Leroy Ramone, bass player and occasional narrator (Tony Kopa), greets us as we walk in. “Hey, brother,” he murmurs, shaking hands. “Get yourself a drink.”
Guitarist Philly Ray (Phil Cebrano) is banging out a funky jam. A guy and girl dressed in aviators, headbands and colourful, loose fitting clothes are slow dancing, with a bit of arse-grabbing for the audience to see. Afros are the hairstyle of choice. I start to feel positively un-groovy amid this magnificent recreation of a 70s soul/funk concert.
A disco ball hangs above and red, blue and yellow lights splatter all over venue. Smoke slowly spreads and hangs in the air. At this point, the doors leading to the outside world are feeling distant, as the transformative performance works its magic.
A few seats to my left, a concert-goer in a hippie getup lets out a squawk of laughter and tumbles back in her chair. Leroy yells out and she starts to stumble around, drink in hand. She lunges at the camera op, his film displayed on the projector screen up the back, and she tackles him down. Other stage hands run in to cart her off as she laughs and cheers in their arms. Leroy apologises with a laugh. “She can get a little crazy sometimes.”
Now I’m sure of it. I’ve time-travelled to the 70s. Smack dab in the middle of a Betty Davis concert.
Betty Davis was a funk and soul singer throughout the 60s and 70s. She produced only three albums during her career but her influence has rolled like a wave throughout musical history. You can hear her primal, raunchy voice inspiring artists as diverse as Erykah Badu, Sasquatch and the late Amy Winehouse.
Briefly married to Miles Davis, she introduced the jazz king to her friends Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. Davis also encouraged Miles to call his album Bitches Brew, instead of the lukewarm “Witches Brew”.
Betty Marby took Davis’s name and stuck with it after their short marriage, but she’s nobody’s other half. Song writer from the age of 12 and spinning records in trendy New York club “The Cellar” before she was twenty, Betty never needed a guiding hand. She wrote and produced all her albums and stayed clean despite the narcotics that pervaded the 60s. “When everybody started to get high,” Betty said in one of the only interviews she ever gave, “I’d just leave.” Her connection to the 60s was a musical one.
Cecilia Low, creator/writer/producer/costumer/genius embodies the history and explosive soul of Betty Davis perfectly. The moment she struts onto the stage, clad in a silver, winged suit like some uniform from a 70s science fiction movie, the stage is transformed into Betty’s personal pedestal. Low’s screeches and growls aren’t merely an impersonation, she revives the queen of funk and shoves it right in the audience’s face (to our delight). Her onstage moves celebrate the sexual revolution of the time, with high kicks and gyrations. Her swaggering walk oozes sex appeal and fierce power simultaneously. This is Cecilia Low’s show, and she knows it.
The band’s repertoire includes Betty’s first song with The Chambers “Uptown in Harlem”, popular Davis number “They Say I’m Different” and plenty of hits from her first album like the controversial “Your Man, My Man (it’s all the same)”. Behind her, bass player and drummer (Thom Mann) keep tight grooves while the guitarist overlays with wah-pedals and screaming solos. Keyboardist and saxophonist Blind Gee (Glen Reither) is a revelation, as if they snatched a keyboardist straight out of a Woodstock performance.
Accompanying Davis on vocals is Miss HuffnPuff (Eliza Wolfgramm). Smaller in stature to the towering Low, HuffnPuff is no minor presence. The two harmonise together sublimely and when she wants to, HuffnPuff can hold her own on the stage.
In little snippets framed like stage banter, Betty tells her story. She signals to the audience, fictionalising us to become part of the fantasy: “Oh hi, Mr Clapton. I do hope you can stay a little longer this time.” The Miles Davis romance is a sly anecdote, a wink to the audience because Betty knows we know about it already. She tells us he liked her because, “She had her shit together.” An instrumental rendition of Hendrix’s Voodoo Child comes midway through the show to pay tribute.
Cecilia Low doesn’t just stick to Betty’s stage persona. On the projector screen—a great storytelling technique deftly handled by cinematographer Cameron Zayec—we see Betty go backstage to apply makeup, where she admits she’s not attracted to Hendrix (something Miles Davis didn’t believe). In interviews Betty is soft-spoken, shy and describes herself as an “introvert”. She brushes off compliments, but her voice lights up when she talks music.
The show took a darker turn with the death of Jimi Hendrix and later Devon Wilson—played on screen by Zahra Newman—at which point the music became a nightmarish, psychedelic mash accompanying the chaos: Leroy tried to hook up with Betty and was pushed away and Betty left the stage, distraught; the lights fell into darkness and the band was immobile. These moments kept the show versatile and showed Low’s acting chops. Kenneth Moraleda’s direction in this scene was subtle, with the camera op continually trying to film Betty up close while she pushed him away. This showed up on the big screen, an angle from bottom up emphasizing our diva’s ordeal.
There was so much going on in They Say She’s Different, but at no point was it overwhelming. Cecilia Low is a brilliant, vicious performer who has summoned the spirit of early Betty Davis. The show is a masterpiece, a perfect example of every player doing their part, passionately engaged with the material.
At the end, the handsy dancers from earlier came back, coaxing audience members to get up and boogie. A standing ovation closed the show as credits rolled the band was introduced with instrumental solos to accompany each call-out. Reality returned and I left on the kind of high Betty herself might have had, the one that kept her away from the stuff that killed her friends—the high of an exhilarating performance.