The lady onstage has the presence of a Baptist preacher; consistently wiping sweat from her brow yet somehow going on for hours at the same breakneck pace. She doesn't want a testimonial, or even a “hallelujah.” A simple holler back will do.
The pulpit is getting a little crowded, the booths all but taken.
With that, Lady Dottie & the Diamonds launch into “Walking the Dog,” a song made famous by Rufus Thomas. While the song selection isn't unique, the band onstage certainly is. Dottie, a voluptuous black woman, is significantly older than the men surrounding her, although the Lady rarely tells her real age. The Diamonds look like a bunch of indie-rock guys (many are) who stumbled into the wrong gig.
But here they are, belting out standards like “Proud Mary” and “In the Midnight Hour.” They play 'em like they were meant to be played, broken down to the blues roots of rock 'n' roll and capturing rock's initial intent: to make you happy and to make you move.
“Everyone's getting loose and having a good time,” keyboardist and co-vocalist Joe Guevara explains of D&D gigs. “It's not a cool-kid contest. We're not trying to fake like we're coming up with some new art form that has some kind of integrity that no one gets. We're trying to be part of the audience and party with them.”
While formed by Dottie (Dorothy Mae Whitsett) and Guevara as a standard jazz duo, they've evolved over the past few years into a full-fledged band that includes drummer Andy Robillard, guitarist Nate Beale and stand-up bassist Stephen Rey. Guevara and Dottie admit that they originally just wanted to play some corporate gigs and make some money on the side.
“We didn't think that it would catch on with our peers,” says Guevara.
Dottie nods in agreement, but adds: “Old, young, we're all in this together. You can bring your mama to our show and she'll have a good time.”
People started to take notice a few years ago when the band began a regular gig at the Tower Bar in City Heights. Every week, more and more people showed up. The place would get hotter, the people would get looser. Everyone knew every tune, as the band segued from “I Just Want to Make Love to You” into “Born to be Wild” as if they were the same song, the crowds throwing the words back at the band.
That night at the Tower Bar started to revive a lost ideal in music: the connection between audience and performer, an absence of space between the stage and the floor.
Now here they are, wrapping up their first of three sets of the night. While most bands would be exhausted, Lady Dottie & the Diamonds often play for close to four hours each gig. There are plans to record an album of original material (with a few covers thrown in for good measure), but for now the band seems content just playing the music they love.
Later in the night, a woman in the audience leans over to me and says she can't believe there's no cover charge at the door; I'm reminded of something Dottie said earlier, during a totally unrelated conversation.
“Happiness shouldn't cost you a dime.”
Lady Dottie & The Diamonds play at the Casbah, 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 15. $12. 619-232-4355. They also play the Tower Bar every Monday night, Henry's Pub every Wednesday night and House Of Blues every Saturday night. Free.