Sammy Rae is a force of nature, and I don’t say that lightly. Described as a mix of house-party, cover-band, and power ballad group, Sammy Rae Bowers and her six-piece group of Friends form not just a band but a community. Cobbled together from a group of artists and creatives, Sammy Rae & The Friends encompasses a wide swath of instruments and styles: there’s a saxophone, several synthesizers, drums, bass, and of all things, a ukulele played by Sammy Rae herself. Although Sammy Rae has been singing for almost a decade, she’s spent the last few years building the current band and developing their style and camaraderie. Bringing together old hats, new friends, and up-and-coming artists, the band is truly a mixing pot of styles, experiences and musical styles.
I admit that I kind of like these types of groups — when you have seven band members on stage, it’s sometimes a bit chaotic, but that’s part of the fun. With bands like these, sometimes it’s too much and you feel like an overstimulated house-cat, desperately tracking nine different stuffed mice. With the Friends, fresh off the release of “Follow Me Like the Moon,” they’re on a tour of the same name, delivering their back catalog of songs mixed with some new entries, random improvisations and funky covers.
The band’s big brass sound, recently deployed at D.C.’s iconic 9:30 Club on March 4, reminds me a lot of the ensemble rock bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s, born of the Big Band era and mixing in the horns and sax of Motown with a more modern synth and keys presentation. The band takes a back-seat, however, to the lead singer and namesake of the group, Sammy Rae. Her powerful, blockbusting voice and intense delivery is quite impressive. She’s a powerhouse, capable of the vocal range and volume to deliver home the most taxing of songs. She can hit the high notes, like on their track “Jackie Onassis”; deliver soulful and honeyed vocals like their (excellent) cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule The World”; and deliver sustained vocal magic on their first-time-live cover of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” Tracks like “Denim Jacket” and “Talk It Up” provide more affirmation of Sammy Rae’s vocal mastery. She’s the glue that holds the group together and is what makes it so powerful.
The group’s musical ethos is a celebration of individuality, and I think that really works. Not only is the group great with each other and the audience, but the message of valuing one’s own distinctiveness and what makes each of us special is a refreshing message. The band’s not full of themselves — they still embody that scrappy, humble feel, mirrored in their online presence where they show off the capacity of their performance venues; they’re out to prove something, beyond the supportive and welcoming environment they stand for. I don’t feel these seven won’t need to prove themselves much longer.
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