Rebecca Rego channels Lucia Berlin in new album, ‘Songs for Cleaning Women, Part 1’

CHICAGO—So far, Eighth Blackbird’s attempts at live-streaming a virtual concert series from their production house in Horner Park have not gone well. The series—called Chicago Artists Workshop, or CAW for short (get it? CAW? Like a bird?)—was set to open Oct. 20 with the ensemble’s Grammy Award-winning co-founders Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duvall accompanying tenor Karim Sulayman in a rangy program featuring plenty of Poulenc alongside works by Gustavo Santaolalla, Frederic Rzewksi, Stacy Garrop, Sam Cooke and Billy Bragg.

Alas, they would not make it through the first piece, which produced a flurry of comments in the chat about an echo in the audio. After nearly half an hour trying to get up and running, they eventually called it, rescheduling the concert for the following week (which unfortunately meant I could no longer see it).

Second in the series, Champaign singer/songwriter Rebecca Rego launched her latest album Nov. 11, playing guitar and singing alongside Eighth Blackbird members J. Tom Hnatow and Mike Pryzgoda playing a cornucopia of instruments. The night once again included Duvall and Kaplan, who opened the performance with the surprising twinkle of a celeste before shifting to piano.

It unfortunately started out somewhat the same as Sulayman’s evening, with audio issues and a few needed resets to the stream. I suppose it’s picky to be frustrated by these kind of technical glitches, but it’s only because watching Rego is not nearly as satisfying on a computer screen and downright disheartening when you can’t hear her, either.

Rego is, in fact, a brilliant songwriter and a treasure to Central Illinois. With or without her Chicago-based band, The Trainmen, Rego captures the essence of her current home with an modern americana vibe. Champaign is neither north nor south. It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll.

Once the tech issues were settled, audience members were treated to samples from Rego’s newest album, Songs for Cleaning Women, Part 1, interspersed with a few segments of Q&A. Each song on the album draws from snippets of A Manual for Cleaning Women, a series of short stories by author Lucia Berlin.

Berlin is thought by many to have been underrated, having never achieved mass appeal during her lifetime. Her books are what one might call cult classics, though even the New York Times recognized her distinct voice in A Manual for Cleaning Women:

“Some short story writers — ­Chekhov, Alice Munro, William Trevor — sidle up and tap you gently on the shoulder: Come, they murmur, sit down, listen to what I have to say,” wrote Ruth Franklin in the Times in 2015. “Lucia Berlin spins you around, knocks you down and grinds your face into the dirt. You will listen to me if I have to force you, her stories growl.”

I wouldn’t say any of the six songs Rego premiered growl, per se, but they’re not benign, either. On this night, actress Leah Casey bookended each song with spoken word excerpts from the book. Like Rego—whose golden-toned voice is flavored with a stunning blend of jazz, country and a coffee house mic night—Casey’s performance is understated and retrospective. But there’s an underbelly that gives the impression that both women relate deeply to the images they portray in this somewhat random collection of musings, each imbued with emotion, if subtly: sorrow, pain, grief—at times, ambivalence. Berlin extracted complexity from the mundane, painting indelible portraits of switchboard operators and laundromats. Rego, too, manages a sublime sonic reference to her inspiration with an album that is anything but ordinary.

Songs for Cleaning Women, Part 1, is on sale now, available through Bandcamp.

Header photo, left to right: Rebecca Rego, Matthew Duvall and J. Tom Hnatow. Photo by Nick Zoulek

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.