The Sally Cats Are "On The Prowl" With Winning Covers On New EP

Published: 2013-08-06

The Santa Barbara-based Sally Cats consist of regional vets, professional musicians who have no doubt paid their dues. Although the group is mainly rooted in jazz, folk and blues influences break through the surface, perhaps no more than on their new EP On the Prowl. Here vocalist Sally Barr again casts a mesmerizing presence; her singing brims with real emotion but she is also able to strike different tones and juggle various styles with equal efficiency; she’s a winner.

Covering various rock and jazz classics, the Cats don’t always stay faithful to their original interpretations, which makes their renditions breathtakingly fresh. For example, “These Boots Are Made for Walking” is slowed down; the result is a version that is actually sexier than Nancy Sinatra’s hit. “That Old Black Magic” finds Barr at her most playful, while “I Told Ya I Loved Ya, Now Get Out” is driven by a thumping beat. Those tracks find the Cats mining their jazzy side, but they aren’t afraid to venture into roots-rock territory as well. “Blues Power” sounds exactly as the title suggests, with Barr really giving it a blues kick while Brad Rabuchin rips on the guitar.

Santa Barbara’s the Sally Cats tighten up on their new EP, On the Prowl, a stripped-down covers CD that offers a succinct presentation of the group’s bracing energy and spellbinding versatility. The swinging jazz of “Lullaby of the Leaves” accelerates because each member kicks it into gear, from the soaring saxophone of Tom Buckner to the pulsating bass of James Connolly to the jamming guitar of Brad Rabuchin, all lead by the honeyed vocals of Sally Barr. But it wouldn’t be a Sally Cats record if the group stayed within any stylistic boundaries; no, these Cats love to roam.

On “Sugar Mama,” Barr really displays her range, her voice occupying the space between the fragile melancholy of folk and the deep passion of the blues. The production is clean and lean, perfectly capturing the layers of emotion in her vocals. It is tremendous stuff, the kind of performance that would bring the house down, which I’m sure is what the Cats do regularly when they gig. Rabuchin’s electrifying playing and the velvety sultriness of Barr’s singing fuel “Blues Power.” When these Cats hit the floor, there’s no stopping them.

It begins with an acoustic guitar, its strings warm and harmonious to the ear. Then a female voice appears, sweet and soft. Horns kick in, eventually making way for a scorching violin. On their latest album, Wonderful Day, the Sally Cats have a beautiful way of introducing themselves. This isn’t just another jazz act covering familiar standards with the same unimaginative, cookie-cutter approach. On Wonderful Day, the Sally Cats sing of life and love with the blue-sky optimism of a California summer. This is West Coast jazz with the arena-filling sound of a Big Band. 

The Sally Cats is fronted by vocalist Sally Barr whose connection to the Santa Barbara jazz scene runs deeper than the group. Barr is also the editor/publisher of MUSIC! The Sounds of Santa Barbara, a monthly magazine that chronicles the city’s diverse population of artists even beyond the world of jazz. After Barr relocated to Santa Barbara in 1992, she quickly became involved in regional live performances, joining the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra and the Santa Barbara Symphony as well as eventually bands of her own including the Sally Cats. “I am delighted to have been among the music makers here in Santa Barbara for nearly the past two decades,” Barr said. “I am so proud to watch it flourish as the years go by.”

Barr’s bluesy croon is certainly among the Sally Cats’ strengths. When Barr sings, “Saving my love for you,” on “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” it is with an aching sincerity that is profoundly moving. On “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” Barr plumbs the depth of despair with unguarded fragility. Remarkably, a voice as powerful as Barr’s could overshadow the contributions of her band but that’s not the case at all. Surrounded by top-drawer veteran players, the rest of the Cats continually strut their brilliance. James Connolly’s pulsating bass and Jon Nathan’s crackling drums help give “What Is This Thing Called Love” its boisterous energy; Tom Buckner’s lush, crestfallen saxophone on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” heighten its sense of loss; Nate Birkey’s giddy trumpet elevates the sunny charms of “Caravan”; and Brad Rabuchin’s guitar playing is consistently crisp and engaging throughout.

Given the talent involved, it won’t be long before the Sally Cats will purr their way into the heart of America.

There is gold in Santa Barbara, and it is personified by the honeyed voice of jazz vocalist Sally Barr.

As the leader of the wonderfully named Sally Cats, Barr has a bittersweet croon that is equal parts blues, folk, and jazz. She is no one-dimensional singer, no disciple of a single genre; there is versatility in her range of emotions and how she expresses them. On their new album “Wonderful Day,” her Cats follow her lead, a tightly-knotted collective that is nevertheless spontaneous enough to flow with her free-spirited groove.

On “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Barr’s singing is sultry and smooth; there is a dreamy quality to the way that she lets the words roll out, and the Cats back her up with fireplace warm acoustic guitars and relaxing horns. The Sally Cats leap from the playful intimacy of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to the Big Band splash of “What Is This Thing Called Love” without losing their grip. Jim Connolly’s throbbing bass propels the rhythm forward as Barr unleashes the blues in her soul. It’s a dazzler.

Throughout the album Barr continues to impress, revealing different sides to her personality. On “Tenderly,” Barr is completely swept away by romance, and the breathless passion in her voice is stunningly beautiful. The listener, too, becomes caught in the moment, engulfed in a whirlwind of feelings. It epitomizes the true power of a song, when it can pull the listener in, and the listener refuses to let go, lost in the throes of love.

In “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” Barr breaks the heart, her icy delivery expressing deep-seated wounds. It is the record’s show-stopping moment, the peak of the mountain. Before it switches to “The Shadow of Your Smile,” there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

The Sally Cats take overly familiar jazz standards and make them feel new again. In fact, after hearing Barr sing them with such soulful depth, one might not want to hear a different version anymore.