It Takes the Right Cat to Dig You — Queen Esther’s Gild the Black Lily
by John Job
“Twang was inside me with a heart beat and a back beat that kept me out of step with the world.” (Queen Esther, in her 2018 TED Talk in NYC)
After three decades of singing in bars and hotel ballrooms, at private parties and corporate conventions, on Broadway tours and downtown streets, in concert halls, Texas blues joints, and Harlem jazz clubs, Queen Esther released an album in 2021 that defines Americana with breathtaking authenticity. How? I’ll get to that.
Took a while to get around to reviewing this latest work of hers. She’s just a lot to take in.
I don’t know another artist in any medium, in any other era, on any continent, quite like Queen Esther. She has a lovely family name, but she hasn’t used it in years, so I won’t. She doesn’t like anyone to drop her royal title either. So throughout this article, it’s always Queen Esther.
She is one of the most fiercely independent creative persons I have ever met. No one has ever given her a thing but informed advice. In theater, in creative writing, in song writing, record making, and live performance, everything she makes, she makes herself. With that independence, she is also the perfect collaborator, because real collaboration is an art unto itself, and the weak willed are total failures at it.
With eight original songs, of which one is recorded in two differing versions, plus three covers and an unattributed traditional tune first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson 90 years ago, Queen Esther’s Gild the Black Lily is a crash course in getting real. This record doesn’t just grow on you. It grows in you.
In a phenomenon that reflects the experience of many African American artists, the special talents radiating from Queen Esther have been noticed first by European reviewers. She has toured a lot in Europe with James “Blood” Ulmer, so Euro reviews are no surprise. The surprise is that they’re so effusive.
For instance, the Madrid edition of Vanity Fair called Esther “a brutal, original, explosive singer.” The Belgian journal RootsTime said “Our admiration for Queen Esther is almost beyond measure.”
In England, the fan magazine Country Music People said “every song is sung with fire and passion by this underrated singer who should be a giant.”
In the Netherlands, Blues Magazine said “Queen Esther is an extremely talented singer / songwriter who can compete with the major players in this field, such as Lucinda Williams.”
The Swedish Musikmagasin Lira says “Gild the Black Lily is a minor masterpiece.” Minor? And in Norway, the e-journal Feedback says “Gild the Black Lily just mows down everything Queen Esther has done before, with the banjo as a weapon. She sings ridiculously well. I almost thought this record was a previously unreleased album by Aretha Franklin, a sort of ‘Aretha-goes-country,’ that everyone but me knew about.”
Well… I don’t agree with that assessment.
As a body of work, Queen Esther’s previous albums – Talking Fishbowl Blues (2004),
What is Love (2009), and The Other Side (2014) are so of-a-piece and so richly unassailable, it’s absurd to say the next in the series “mows down” the rest. And that’s not to mention the numerous records by other artists that she has graced with her voice, like Elliott Sharp’s Hoosegow (1996), Blues & Grass by the 52nd Street Blues Project (2004), Electric Willie: a Tribute to Willie Dixon by Elliott Sharp, Eric Mingus, Queen Esther et al (2010), and Meet Me at Minton’s by the JC Hopkins Biggish Band (2016).
The original song “Help Me” from Talking Fishbowl Blues makes this point. It’s recorded a cappella, but with a fair measure of volumizing echo. The lyrics are nakedly, starkly honest. And they foreshadow Gild the Black Lily‘s “The Whiskey Wouldn’t Let Me Pray.”
Day break and night time is falling / Comes to me without a warning / Punch-drunk enough to contain me / My hopes can never sustain me.
Feeling the weight of confusion / Happiness is an illusion / Sailing to keep on romancing/ The danger I keep second-chancing.
I’m too numb to care for you / I’m too cold to feel what you do / It’s too late to face the truth between us / What we had will not see us through.
Help me to say no / Help me not to want more / Help me to let go / Help me to walk out that door.
Is there a more pained song in the universe? As a writer in song craft, as a person whose feelings flow from one’s fingertips straight to the page, is there anything more satisfying than lyrics like that?
Queen Esther’s original songs on Black Lily have a depth and aching connection to each other that hooks a listener instantly and doesn’t let go.
They range from the personal:
I swam all the way home through this dirty little town / A bright light to guide my way / Don’t want to get so high / I tell the world goodbye / ‘Cause the whiskey wouldn’t let me pray
…to the cultural:
So you think you’re the brave ones in the land of the free / With a heart full of fear and a mouthful of hate / While millions of bullets fill the streets / The truth is, there are so many lies / We’re fighting a battle that’s over and done / and a war that’s only just begun. (“All That We Are”)
There’s an authentic, gospel-like version of “Take It To The Limit” on this record that should be playing on every classic rock, R&B, Americana, and country radio station coast to coast. Why isn’t it?
I asked Queen Esther’s master of the bass, the esteemed Hilliard Greene, “Why don’t more people know this singer?” He said, “There are lots of wannabe singers out there, but they don’t have the range or the experience Queen Esther has. You’re right, not enough people know her, but it’s like John Scofield told me (jazz guitarist extraordinaire): it takes the right cat to dig you.”
Queen Esther’s electric guitarist, Jeff McLaughlin, zeroed in on the harmolodic basis for their arranging and recording process. Harmolodics is the improvised science distilled from the creative tornado that whirled through the great Ornette Coleman’s mind, and this band sticks pretty close to its beautiful precepts.
1: Have just the right ensemble to work with, players who allow your instincts to flourish.
2: The only thing that matters in music is whether you feel it or not. People have forgotten how beautiful it is to be natural.
3: Labels are the worst thing in the world for artistic expression. People don’t realize it, but there’s a real folklore music in jazz. It’s neither black nor white. It’s the mixture of the races, and folklore comes from it.
Americana is folklore. And folklore is Americana. It’s really that simple.
A closer look at Queen Esther’s band for Gild the Black Lily drives this home. Her guitarist and mandolinist, Boo Reiners, is a bluegrass innovator from Asheville with technical chops that make other musicians cower in the corner, and McLaughlin plays like Julian Lage only dreams of playing. Drummer Shizarette Tinnin is simply far-out and unclassifiable. Bassist Hill Greene is a venerable and deeply connected jazzman. And B-3 organist Greg Lewis is a jazz phenom whose playing has been described as “filthy and graceful, slow and distorted, unnerving, passionate, upbeat, sizzling and celebratory.”
So how do you blend these artists together with Queen Esther’s voice, her music, and her poetry to make an Americana landscape?
Esther comes to it naturally. She grew up in the South Carolina Lowcountry and in Atlanta, went to college in Austin, and spent 15 years doing theater and concerts around Texas. Then she found her home, her love, and her calling in NYC, in Harlem. She was more comfortable at The Apollo than the Shubert, but she could do both.
When the legendary jazz club Minton’s Playhouse reopened on 118th Street ten years ago, it was like a time warp, and Queen Esther held court on that stage like she’d been there since the days of Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan. If you Google Minton’s, you’ll more than likely see photos of Queen Esther.
So when Gild the Black Lily was being written, practiced, performed and produced for recording, it was like Billie Holiday had moved to San Antonio, and those burnt orange sunsets infused Esther’s jazz senses with the twin fiddle playfulness that has fueled Texas swing for 80 years.
Each original song on this record is a gem. “Black Cowgirl Song.” “The Whiskey Wouldn’t Let Me Pray.” “Oleander.” “Our Dying Day.” “This Yearning Thing.””All That We Are.” “He Thinks I Still Care. And “I Love You.” They’re perfectly ordered, so by the time “I Love You” ends, you’re tempted to say I love you back.
But before that epiphany, there are two revelations. One is The Eagles “Take It To The Limit.” The other is a cover of “Wishin’ On The Cars” by Chip Robinson.
In the 1990’s, Robinson was the frontman of a Raleigh, NC group, The Backsliders. When they disbanded in 2000, Chip disappeared down a spider hole of alcohol, drugs, and cancer. Then he came back to this side of the great divide with a bunch of illuminating songs. In Queen Esther’s hands, this particular song gilds the lily and reflects pure sunlight.
When your world is on fire/ And your feet are out of juice / Losing balance on the wire / And the screws are coming loose / I’ll be there for you.
Esther’s cover of The Eagles takes it to the limit in ways Don Henley et al never reached. Backed by several harmonizing copies of her own voice, Queen Esther soars in this song to dizzying heights, until it’s no longer a memory of The Eagles. It’s a debut by Queen Esther, as only she can pull it off.
The album ends with a second take on Esther’s song “The Whiskey Wouldn’t Let Me Pray,” an acoustic version that is more ethereal, sorrowful, and repentant than the first version with the full band. It’s the perfect ending to a perfect album.
In my dreams, I saw a city on a hill / Sunshine all the live-long day / So much light on this heart of mine / But the whiskey wouldn’t let me pray.
Can you make perfection more perfect? That’s what “gild the lily” means.
The idiom is actually a misquote from William Shakespeare’s King John. Here’s what Shakespeare wrote: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw perfume on the violet, …to add another color to the rainbow …is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” So “gild the lily,” as the idiom has come into common usage, means a pointless effort to improve perfection.
I’m going to end this review with some thoughts from Queen Esther’s bluegrass collaborator, Boo Reiners. Reiners isn’t bluegrass in the Doyle Lawson mold. He’s in the same circle as Ketch Secor, or maybe the Bad Livers. His touring group is called the Demolition String Band. Hence, the poetic sensitivity he displays here:
“Queen Esther is what I strive to be in music: versatile, flexible, and (take your pick) real, authentic, honest. Whether singing, acting, recording, writing, producing, or supporting other performers on stage, she is committed to her art and her process. Along with her natural talent, her commitment is instantly recognizable to audiences, so it’s easy to be onstage with her, and fun, and sometimes hilarious. Yep, she’s a gift.
“We’re both from the South and grew up going to church. We met in the big city here (NYC) several years back when I worked on her first album, Talkin’ Fishbowl Blues. Esther is no “queen.” I mean, she doesn’t go in for off-stage drama or rockstar diva nonsense. She’s a hoss with a highly productive and creative work ethic. She’s diplomatic, she’s focused, and she just plain gets things done. Oh, and a heart of gold.”
I totally agree. And I agree with Musikmagasin LIRA, that Gild the Black Lily is a masterpiece.
The album was produced by Queen Esther. Recorded in Brooklyn NY at Mighty Toad. Engineered by Craig Dreyer. Mixed and mastered by Jorg Mohr at Roadhouse Productions in Bremen, Germany.
Let go of every preconception you have of what Americana music looks like, what it includes or excludes, and let something new embrace you. Take it to the limit.
Visit queen-esther.com. All of her recordings are available there. http://www.queen-esther.com