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The alchemy of the blues

There's a magical process that happens when musicians of a certain calibre perform together. That's how singer Karen Lovely feels when she performs with her new group.

Lovely is joined by Michael Vannice on saxophone, Tom Stamper on drums, Mary T. on guitar, Jay Jorgensen on bass and Gary Halliburton on keys.

The group performs at 10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, at Alex's Plaza Restaurant, 35 N. Main St., Ashland.

"They're my favorite people to play with," Lovely says. "I love to listen to Michael play sax, his music is so soulful and moving, I can feel it on a cellular level. Tom puts so much enthusiasm and joy into his playing, it makes him a delight. Mary's got a Stratocaster, and she plays the hell out of it. And Jay is one of the best bass players in Southern Oregon. Everyone wants him in their bands.

"These guys can just channel what they're playing, and I feel honored to play with musicians of this calibre. It's like stepping onto a cloud and riding it," Lovely says.

Vannice, Stamper and Jorgensen are well-known in Southern Oregon. Mary T. is a blues guitarist, singer and songwriter who recently relocated to the Rogue Valley from San Diego, where she played with a series of bands and appeared at regional blues festivals.

Lovely grew up in Boston, then lived in Los Angeles for about 11 years and sang with friends in a couple of bands. She spent a year in London performing with a folk and blues trio that included Simon Harrison. Harrison's father, Noel Harrison, wrote the Oscar-winning song "Windmills of My Mind" for the 1968 version of "The Thomas Crown Affair," starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.

"We were performing at an outdoor festival, and I saw Princess Diana," Lovely says. "She stayed for the whole concert. I thought 'Wow, she must really like my voice.' Then I discovered I was looking at a life-size cutout of the woman."

When Lovely returned to the United States, it was to Maine. There she sang at local festivals and venues while she pursued her bachelor's in communications.

She moved to Southern Oregon in 1994, when a friend told her how beautiful it was. It wasn't until 2005 that she joined the Women with Wings choir and began singing again.

"I had gotten stagefright and was afraid to sing," Lovely says. But she found her voice again when the choir asked her to perform solo. The song was "I Ain't Afraid."

"First I had to learn to say 'ain't' because of my Catholic school background," Lovely says.

Then Lovely began singing on a weekly basis last May with the Royal Blues Band at Alex's Restaurant.

"I've learned a lot about music singing with that band," she says. "I learned a lot about improvisation, stage presence and collaboration."

And she learned that she loves being a blues singer.

There's something about the blues that moves people, it's something that everyone can relate to," Lovely says. "People have an emotional connection with the blues."

Lovely's set list includes songs by Nina Simone, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, Billy Holiday and Janice Joplin. She admires these women because of their struggles to succeed in a male-dominated industry, she says.

"These women are my idols," Lovely says. "I have a tattoo of a group of them on my right arm. It makes me feel strong, and I feel like I'm channeling them through my voice. I call them my totem."

Cover for the show at Alex's is free. Call 482-8818.

Songs by Nina Simone, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, Billie Holiday and Janice Joplin fill Karen Lovely's set list. - Photo courtesy of Karen Lovely