In the Age of Coronavirus, musicians all over Houston (and the world) are understandably itchy to get back onstage—even under new rules and restrictions for live venues. And for artists who also happen to have new records to promote, there’s an extra twist of the metaphorical knife.
That’s how Houston-based singer/saxophonist Evelyn Rubio certainly feels. “It’s not too pleasant to be just inside all the time and not being able to play. And nobody knows what’s going to happen or how it’s all going to work out,” she says. “I want to play more out there and get this music out.”
The music she’s referring to are the dozen tracks that make up her new record, Crossing Borders (SeaSpeed Productions). Though they are firmly rooted in Rubio’s preferred genre of the blues, the material also branches out into other areas. Songs like “One More Last Time,” “Just Like a Drug,” “He Did Me Wrong But He Did It Right,” “I Don’t Understand,” and “Border Town” cover a lot of sonic ground, from scorching rockers and sultry ballads to dance floor groovers and smooth sailings. Rubio says there will be a tentative record release show June 6 at the Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club.
“It took me two years to put it together. I still wanted it to be based in the blues, but with more rock,” she says. “I knew it needed something extra, and that’s when I called Larry Fulcher, and he got the Phantom Blues Band.”
Fulcher – who produced Crossing Borders – brought along his buddies in the PBB to contribute to the record, something their members have done on stage and in the studio with acts ranging from Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal to Joe Cocker and the Allman Brothers Band. Other guests on the record included former Spirit bandmates Al Staehely and Mark Andes (also ex-Heart), David Grissom (John Mellencamp, Joe Ely) and Josh Sklair (Etta James). Rubio plays sax throughout, and sings lead in all English – though bonus tracks feature Spanish versions of three tunes.
“They were all super open and helpful, all of them. I didn’t feel any pressure, and they all wanted to make this album really good,” she says of the sessions recorded in Houston (Wire Road and Sound Arts Studios) and Austin, as well as Studio City, California.
Rubio says that while the title of Crossing Borders has a tinge of political meaning, it’s more about traveling through musical lines of demarcation than geographical ones—though she knows plenty about the latter.
Rubio was raised in the barrios of Mexico City. She knew she could sing, but also wanted to play an instrument. And though it’s hard to picture her today without her golden horn companion, it was not her first instrument.
I started with the guitar, but it was more difficult, and maybe I was a little lazy. My hands would hurt!” she laughs. And while she dutifully learned six string solos from B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” she said the pain in her hands got to be too much. Spying a saxophone in her guitar teacher’s home, so wondered aloud if she could take a shot at that instead.
“He asked me to just blow into it and try and make a noise, and I did! And on that first day, I learned [jazz standard] ‘Satin Doll,’’ Rubio recalls. “After that, he told me ‘Forget about the guitar! Your instrument is the saxophone!’”
As to what brought her to Houston in September 2006, it had to do more with hearts than horns.
“I came to the United States for love. I fell in love with a gringo from Houston! So I had to come here!” she says. “I always wanted to come here to play, but never thought I would live here. It was all part of God’s plan.”
After meeting Houston music legend and former B.B. King bandleader Calvin Owens, and another King alum, James Bolden, Rubio began playing and recording with both groups. She would record her own 2016 album with the Owens orchestra, Hombres, with both Spanish and English versions.
“This was part of Calvin Owens’ dream. He wanted to make the record in Spanish,” she says. “Blues has no borders, and that’s the way it should be.”
Finally, it’s important to mention that Rubio has played stages not just in Houston and the United States but all over the world (she’s especially popular in Italy). But she’s not the first to notice something ironic that’s been customary for decades: American blues artists are often better received outside of their own country.
“Here, they entertain. But over there, they are stars and treated like that. And I’ve been treated good in Europe. And they’ll ask me to sing in Spanish,” she says. “But when I try to sing in Spanish here in the U.S., unfortunately, sometimes I feel people getting uncomfortable. I don’t like that, but it’s true!”
For more in Evelyn Rubio and Crossing Borders, visit EvelynRubio.com