$15. 8 p.m., Aug. 21. Cafe Nine, 250 State St., New Haven, cafenine.com
Like any genre worth a damn, the blues benefits/suffers from myth-making and idealization. Asking a batch of knowledgeable fans basic questions about the style — Who should write it? Who should perform it? Why should it be performed? — threatens a potential flood of philosophical and non-philosophical interpretations. Candye Kane, for one, knows exactly where her opinions fall here. "The blues, historically, is a music of oppressed people. It was born of oppression. It was born of the cotton fields where people were slaving all day long in the hot sun picking cotton," she says. "Historically, you can't really deny where it comes from, but as far as what it does, I think people think of the blues as being slow and sad, and really, the blues was a music that was designed to help people out of their depression, and I think that it still does that."
It's certainly had profound effects for Kane. The San Diego-based singer has been professionally involved in the genre since 1992, but since long before that, the self-proclaimed "life survivor" has led a dramatically idiosyncratic existence, with loads of experiences that would make excellent inspiration for a memoir, novel or — most conveniently — good blues song. Growing up with "an extremely dysfunctional, crazy background" featuring a father in prison and a mom who taught her to shoplift as a child, the Calif.-bred Kane has been a teenage mother, a drug addict, a battered wife and — since 2008 — an on-and-off victim of pancreatic cancer. Professionally, she's been a pin-up model, sex hotline operator, stripper and porn star — not to mention a musician with an absurd amount of variety to her past.
Kane's very first band, which coalesced in grade school, specialized in Bobby Darin tributes. At other times, she took singing lessons when her parents wanted her to be an opera singer, appeared on amateur hour programs like "The Gong Show," and used her impressive vocal skill on doo-wop tracks such as "Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)" and Rosie & the Originals' "Angel Baby" to keep herself from receiving beatings from kids at school in east Los Angeles. Not too long after having a child at 17, she became part of her city's blossoming punk scene during the early '80s. "What made me part of the punk rock scene was that I was a porn queen on the cover of Hustler and Juggs, and I was singing hillbilly music with punk rock hair and Doc Martens in punk bars," Kane says, who played rhythm guitar and sang while being credited under the same name as today, and performed alongside the likes of Circle Jerks, Black Flag and X.
In a bizarre move, Kane eventually turned her hand to a more conventional country/Western sound instead. She was briefly signed to Epic Records in 1986, but after her manager and label tried to whitewash her look and background with the aim of promoting her as a born again Christian, those plans fell apart. By '87, Kane was researching black female blues singers from the '50s through '70s — Big Maybelle, Big Mama Thornton, Alberta Hunter and her personal favorite Bessie Smith — that convinced her to try another musical direction. "The blues didn't care how fat or old I got," Kane says when comparing her status in that genre to country. "In the blues, I actually gained more credibility the more honest I was."
This isn't to say that she has not encountered problems in the subculture, as she went through a period during which she was marginalized by other blues musicians because of her notorious history. For years, the sex-positive, gay-friendly, completely forward Kane had an audience built primarily on the GLBT community and fringe subcultures until longtime blues guitarist/producer Bob Margolin went to bat for her publicly. Kane possesses a big, warm croon that makes you wonder why she was doing anything else all that time. With her partner in crime/guitarist Laura Chavez, she focuses on writing songs hinged on self-empowerment and good humor. Kane talks enthusiastically about the idea of having fans in Lincoln, Neb., or Waukesha, Wis., who will pay to attend her shows and then direct therapeutic goodwill her way, which provides her a measure of relief as she still struggles with her disease. "That's not even counting the 10,000-plus people who like me on Facebook or who are wishing me well around the world. It's just nightly, I get the healing energy of 300 people," she says. "That's pretty hard to beat."