I got an e-mail the other day, and it appears that one of my all time favorite local artist will be returning to town at the end of this month. Cathy Richardson and her band will be making the trip back here to Chicago (Berwyn to be more exacting) on Friday, January 29th to play a show at one of her favorite haunts, Fitzgerald’s. The next night, she take a jog way out west to perform one more show at the Woodstock Opera House. That is Woodstock, Illinois, not the more famous concert farmland in New York.
My admiration for Cathy’s work as a singer, songwriter, musician and performer date back to the early to mid nineties. The first time I ever saw her perform was at a bar called Otto’s out in DeKalb near the campus of Northern Illinois University. I believe it was the winter of 1992/1993, and she was the warm-up act for the late Warren Zevon. Warren was doing an acoustic show, just him and a piano and a guitar. It has always stood out in my mind as one of the best performances I have ever seen, mostly because I had been a huge fan of his since I first heard the red covered album Excitable Boy. It was actually my sister Carrie’s album, but it found its way into my record collection very soon after she bought it. For God’s sake, she was a pom-pom girl. She shouldn’t be listening to such cool music as this. Most people will know Warren Zevon from the song Werewolves of London, which was a moderate hit back in 1978, but became a piece of pop culture as the pool playing samurai song from the 1986 film Color of Money staring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. More recently, the piano cords from the song have made a comeback as part of Kid Rock’s somewhat irritating All Summer Long.
Keeping with the acoustic theme of the night, Cathy performed a variety of music both original and covers with just her guitar. Even without benefit of a band to back her up, her talent was immediately obvious. She really caught my attention with a hard rocking cover version of Like the Way I Do by a fairly new and up and coming artist back then named Melissa Etheridge. I was also very intrigued by an original song of her she introduced as The Back of Your Mind. It had a quick pace and a catchy tune, and although I couldn’t make out all of the lyrics I knew right away it was a song I would listen to again. Her final song for the night was a rendition of the Janis Joplin classic Me & Bobby McGee. It was outstanding, and really made me want to hear more. When she finished her short set, she announced that they were selling cassettes in the back of the room, so I headed over to table to take a look. The tapes were a simple black cassette entitled the letter “i”. It only had four songs, the same four on both sides, but I was thrilled that the first song was indeed The Back of Your Mind. I don’t recall what I paid for the cassette, but it couldn’t have been more than $5. Unfortunately, the cassette is now long gone, which is a real disappointment to me, because even though The Back of Your Mind was later re-recorded and included as part of two different CD releases, the other three songs were not. The final song on the tape was a ballade called One Sunday Morning. It was a heart-felt song about the end of a relationship, and although the lyrics could have used a little work, the feeling of the song combined with Cathy’s strong voice made the song a favorite of mine. I don’t recall the name of the other two songs, but one was a really bluesy one with a lot of guitar work. And it was a cheep little cassette tape, so the quality was really not that great. It is a shame it has been lost. I would enjoy listening to it again.
The same night I bought the tape, I also signed up to Cathy’s mailing list. Basically, just wrote my name and address down on a legal pad along with a few other people’s names. Mass use of e-mail and the internet were still a few years away, at least for me anyway, and the AOL dial-up service that most people over 35 cut their computer teeth on was still in its infancy. Some time after that, I starting receiving postcards in the mail that would announce various locations that Cathy and her band would be playing at. Mostly they were bars, but as the weather warmed up, there were also a variety of outdoor festival locations. One that comes to mind immediately, is the Downer’s Grove Heritage Fest. Even as recently as the past couple of years, this has been a festival that Cathy continues to perform at. In the very early days, she would come up with some of the best cover songs to keep the crowd’s attention, one that has always stood out for me was a version of Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic. She did such a great job with the song that it actually inspired me to give it a try on my own at a Karaoke Night somewhere, and the song has actually become one of my own favorites to perform on those rare occasions when I do find myself back at a Karaoke Night.
It was at one of those street festivals that I picked up Cathy’s first full length CD, Moon, Not Banana. That little table in the back had grown to include bumper stickers and T-shirts along with the CDs and tapes, and Cathy had developed quite a following of devoted fans. The CD was produced by Jim Peterik, former member of Survivor and lead singer of The Ides of March. He wrote and sang yet another of my all time favorite Karaoke songs, the 1970 classic Vehicle. As with most recording of this type, the tracks on this CD have very minimal production quality, and they sound raw at best. But that is what makes this CD so good. It perfectly captured the essence and energy of one of her live shows. The CD also had some great songs that have since been lost in Cathy’s live shows. Back Of Your Mind, This Time and Paper Reasons are just three of the best of what this CD has to offer. This CD also contained another lost love ballade with Over the Miles. It seemed to me that this song grew right out of the discarded One Sunday Morning, and it really showed how Cathy was growing as a songwriter as well as a musician.
A couple years later, Cathy put out a two more CDs, Fools on a Tandem and a live recording entitled All Excess: Live @ Park West. Both of these recordings really captured the spirit of those early days, and the rock your ass off mentality that makes for a great bar band. Both contained the powerful Running Out of Time along with Crimes of Humanity and Down for the Count, but All Excess captured the spontaneity of a live performance that just can’t be produced in the studio. Cathy’s late night alcohol anthem Drink, Drink, Drink which was also on Moon, played so much better with the live crowd energy behind it. It also didn’t hurt that legendary radio sidekick Buzz Kilman (former partner for both Jonathan Brandmeier and Steve Dahl) provided the harmonica. All Excess also contained probably the best live blues version of the Spiderman theme song ever recorded, and as an extra bonus there was the hidden track, known to most of her fans simply as Track 69 or The Lipstick Song.
From here, Cathy’s recording got bigger and better production along with a lot of critical acclaim. Snake Camp, The Road to Bliss, and Delusions of Grandeur all produced some excellent music. Cathy’s career also took some interesting turns including landing a staring role in Love, Janis the musical based on the life of Janis Joplin. This production hooked her up with the former members of Big Brother and the Holding Company where she took to the road and performed with them. She has since relocated to San Francisco where in 2008 she became the new lead singer for the reformed Jefferson Starship. I have to be honest here and say that I have not heard any of the tracks on that CD, but I really should give it a try. I can’t imagine Cathy would associate herself with the project if she didn’t feel it was making some great music. Obviously with all this going on, it has become more and more difficult for Cathy to return to her old stomping grounds here in Chicago, but I for one appreciate that she makes an effort to do so. Even if I do miss the good old days and the less produced music of Moon, Not Banana and All Excess. I have a lot coming up that weekend including a wedding to go to on the 30th, and getting a sitter two nights in a row may prove my undoing. I have included a link to Cathy’s website for anyone interested in getting more information about the shows.
Oh, one final note. Remember when I was talking about those strange career twists. I forgot to mention one of my favorites. For anyone who may have had small children who enjoyed the Noggin show Jack’s Big Music Show, you may have already come face to face with Cathy Richardson. Here she is with some of the shows stars. Again, I have never actually seen the show, my kids are all past the age of this type of educational TV, and it would be down right spooky of me to watch them on my own. But once again I have to give Cathy credit for hooking up with this program. Only I have a feeling she is not singing Drink, Drink, Drink for all the little kiddies. That’s not quite the education the kids need.