This Little Underground: Famed Rolling Stones backup singer Lisa Fischer steps up

This Little Underground: Famed Rolling Stones backup singer Lisa Fischer steps up
Photo by Djeneba Aduayom

The Okeechobee Music Festival (March 4-6) sold out in its debut. That's a triumph that's at least threefold: in scale (over 30,000 in attendance), relevancy (good talent curation) and draw (overcoming Florida's challenging tour geography). So glass up to the rainmaking organizers for this historical feat. Hopefully, it means Florida now has a new, respectable and permanent flag on the major festival map.

The Beat

A big slug of perspective is what you get when you watch the 2013 rock doc 20 Feet From Stardom. This must-see film about backup singers flips – and hopefully forever recalibrates – the view that 99 percent of us have of music performance. Rock fans are so accustomed to image and personality being part of the package that we don't always distinguish skill from star power.

I actually saw Lisa Fischer, one of the film's subjects, sing with the Rolling Stones last year at the Citrus Bowl, and she left a crater of an impression on me though I'd not yet seen the doc and had no idea she was one of the modern era's most esteemed backup singers (such is the nature of being a backup singer). Even without that background knowledge, this show-stealer knocked me and about 55,000 others out when she stepped up. Even Mick scooted over on his cloud for her.

As probably the purest craftsperson in 20 Feet, she's more master than idol. In the film and throughout her career, Fischer has been a reluctant frontwoman, showing little appetite for the self-selling aspect of the business, but onstage, she straight runs it. While she blows down entire stadiums with the Stones, her own show (March 2, Plaza Live) is an extraordinarily nuanced affair. As studious a vocalist as they come, she sings with operatic control and richness. Everything she does – from the way she manages her mic distance to the fact that she uses two mics at the same time, all to render sonic dimension – is total technique. In terms of craft, she's the elite.

Though Fischer did perform her big R&B hit, the Anita Baker-esque "How Can I Ease the Pain," she's primarily a singer not a songwriter, so her setlist consisted largely of covers (including Robert Palmer, Zeppelin, Eric Bibb, Amy Grant and, of course, the Stones). But as an artist in her own right, she took great license in their interpretation. Though she didn't write many of the songs, she owned them live.

Her refinement and that of her band (Grand Baton) gave the show a polite and mature sensibility, but Fischer's singing, with its clear might and flexibility, is a thing of awe. Her personable warmth and unrehearsed intimacy kept it from being just another routine professional stage show.

She maintained frequent interaction with attendees, and at one point she descended onto the floor, weaved her way through the crowd and serenaded fans right to their faces. To conclude this generous stroll through the gallery, she commanded the house lights up to incite everyone to get out of their seats and into a full-audience dance party. If there's any greater testament to Fischer's evocative power than that sight, I can't think of it.

In case you couldn't parse it from her moniker, Missouri's Molly Gene One Whoaman Band (Feb. 28, Lil Indies) is in the true-blue one-man-band business – guitar, foot drums and all. Most excitingly, her boots walk the same scorched path as flame-throwing bosses like Bob Log III and Scott H. Biram. Sounding like Joan Jett fronting the Immortal Lee County Killers all rolled into one person, she stomps out punked-up outlaw blues revved hard with redlining, butter-sizzling Delta slide action. The fact that she's as apt to cover Mississippi Fred McDowell as she is AC/DC gives you a good idea of where she's coming from.

But more than just attitude, there are real chops here too. That "whoa, man" part's not an empty boast. The lady's got heat, sickness and skill. Maybe most importantly for us, she's got family here, so hopefully that means more Orlando appearances than the average stop.

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