WHAT: "Memphis Blues."
IN TOWN: 8 p.m. Saturday, bergenPAC, 30 N. Van Brunt St., Englewood; 201-227-1030 or bergenpac.org. $49 to $99.
ALSO PLAYING: 8 p.m. Friday, Wellmont Theatre, 5 Seymour St., Montclair; 973-783-9500 or wellmonttheatre.com. $35 to $75.
Oh mama, can this really be the end? To be stuck inside of Jersey with the Memphis Blues again?
Actually — and with apologies to Bob Dylan — the Memphis Blues have been not an end but a new beginning for Cyndi Lauper. The lady with the raspberry and aquamarine hair, whose credo (and first album) was "She's So Unusual," took her most unusual turn yet with her 2010 album, "Memphis Blues." "It was successful; I was surprised," she says.
Surprising, certainly, to see the quirky queen of '80s MTV ("Time After Time," "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," "She Bop") dive head-first into a big vat of Albert King, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. And to top that, another surprise: The first lady of Queens New Yawk will be sharing a stage with the first gentleman of N'Orleans blues piano, the gravel-voiced Dr. John.
But in fact, Lauper's roots were always in the blues, she says.
"I started out singing in a Janis Joplin cover band," she says. "And when I did Blue Angel [her early 1980s retro band], that's when I learned about Big Mama Thornton and Big Maybelle. That's the foundation of everything that we sing, and everything I've sung my whole life."
In her upcoming North Jersey dates, which promote both the 2010 album and a live spinoff DVD concert, "To Memphis With Love," she and Dr. John ("Iko Iko," "Right Place, Wrong Time") will mostly play separately, with maybe a climactic team-up at the finish. "I'm a huge fan, so I might see if he'll jam with us," Lauper says. "He can do anything, honestly."
Meanwhile, she'll have her own crack band, including ace blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite, drummer Steve Potts, guitarist Michael Toles, keyboardists Archy "Hubby" Turner and Steve Gaboury and bassist William Wittman, to help her dig into her new repertoire of classic Memphis blues tunes, including "Down Don't Bother Me" by Albert King, "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues" by Ida Cox and the mother of them all, "Crossroads," by Robert Johnson. And yes, she'll be doing her old hits, too.
"I incorporate my old songs with my new songs, and it's a very energetic show," she says. "I mix everything together."
The "Memphis Blues" album, which was nominated for a Grammy and remained at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Blues charts for 14 consecutive weeks, ties in not only with her early musical roots, but with her current social preoccupations.
As a feminist and gay rights activist, Lauper is well aware that the blues was originally a women's genre; most of the early hit-makers of the 1920s were female, and their songs dealt with love and loss from an empowered, female perspective. In telling stories about their own pain, "Ma" Rainey, Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith made it easier for other marginalized people — those in racial and sexual minorities — to make it through the night.
"I chose songs that would empower people who are having down times, songs that felt uplifting," Lauper says. "The thing about the blues, there's a lot of humor in it, and the humor can be uplifting, too."
When Lauper isn't empowering people through the blues, she's empowering characters onstage ("Kinky Boots," the new musical she's collaborating on with Harvey Fierstein, is about workers who turn a failing shoe factory around) and helping to empower abused teenagers in the GLBT community.
"These are kids who are thrown out in the street by parents," she says. "If we have each other's back, we'll get much farther than if we are narrow-minded people who feel that their dogma is more important than their own child. That don't fly."
With Lauper out exploring blues, Broadway and social activism, it's been left to others to claim her crown as pop's queen of extreme. Lady Gaga, for example — who arguably took a leaf or two from both the Lauper and Madonna playbooks.
"I think she's terrific," Lauper says. "I think there are a lot of great young singers out there, but I wouldn't make them anybody's successor, because they certainly have their own path. Well, every artist is supposed to be inspired by people who came before. You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind, you know?"
Article from The Record