Copyright The Washington Post Company Jan 15, 2003

Ruby Hayes at Blues Alley

"I'm gonna let my hair down and get down with the down-home blues," Ruby Hayes sang at Blues Alley on Monday night. The veteran Washington-based vocalist kept her promise by reprising a collection of earthy and sometimes bawdy tunes that reached as far back as the 1920s. She discovered some of them, she told the crowd, growing up in Arkansas and rummaging through her "grandmother's treasure chest."

Hayes isn't a blues belter. She doesn't possess the sort of commanding power that can pin back your shoulders. But she radiates plenty of warmth and personality onstage, especially when paying tribute to some of her chief influences. Bessie Smith, for example, inspired an amusingly animated performance of the classic double- entendre blues "Sugar in My Bowl," while Billie Holiday was saluted with a thoroughly smitten reprise of "Fine and Mellow." Two of the show's biggest crowd pleasers -- the Etta James hit "At Last" and a boisterous, singalong version of "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer" -- alternately softened and enlivened the mood.

There were some surprises as well, including Hayes's odd choice for an "early Valentine dedication" ("Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On") and a Mardi Gras-flavored version of "Got My Mojo Working." The latter tune, drawn from Hayes's new CD "Ruby's Blues," found drummer Greg Holloway stirring up clouds of parade dust. Most of the solo space, however, was allotted to pianist Bill Washburn, guitarist David Coles and bassist Joshua Bayer, who often took turns punctuating the arrangements with colorful and spirited choruses.

-- Mike Joyce