Concerts in Madrid: Amelia is a Ray of Light on the Music Scene

Amelia Ray CD Release Party
April 23rd, 2008, 22:00h
Venue: Juglar
Address: Lavapiés, 37
Metro: Lavapiés
6 euros

By Laurie

Tonight, I appreciate the absence of the things familiar to most concerts
I attend – monster amps, stages, smoke, loud noises. I’ve come to Entredos, a
women’s center near La Puerta del Sol, to hear California-born singer and
composer Amelia Ray. She takes the stage this evening for an intimate show with
her electric guitar and her bass player, Mari-José Estivariz.

Photo: Laura Merayo

You can use

This is a chicks-only gig, and the atmosphere is cheerful,
laid back, animated. When I catch their gaze, the women smile warmly at me. As
a girl in a new city,
I don’t realize how high I hold my guard up until I arrive at a place like
Entredos and at once I feel welcomed. Table lamps have replaced overhead
lights, and forty or fifty women huddle around tableclothed tables drinking
Heinekens and wine, eating olives and homemade empanadas. The space is more
living room than rock venue, with its mismatched chairs, low couches and rose-colored

There are some spunky gals with
cropped ‘dos and colorful stockings, although the majority of the audience are
rockin’ more teacherly looks of long skirts, cardigans and turtlenecks. I
notice a well-dressed woman in her sixties wearing high heel boots, lace,
pearls and a golden grandma perm. She and the ladies at her table remind me of
Patricia Hill Burnett, the radical American feminist who wore muffs and pearls
to NOW meetings. And such it is tonight – a gaggle of mainly middle-aged,
mostly conservatively dressed white women on the edge of their seats as this
younger black American woman begins to sing in a language not all of them

Amelia plays guitar with seasoned
rhythm and ease, but it’s her voice that I fall in love with. She sings for all
of ten seconds before I’m in tears. She speaks to both your heartstrings and
your dancin’ feet. The woman has a voice of caramel – strong, sweet, rich.
Layering gentle, feminine vocals between heavier, more intense verse, she sings
about traveling, loving, and her roots. For a woman who’s been playing on stage
in Europe and America
for nearly twenty years, Amelia Ray appears ageless. With full lips, dark eyes,
and a short buzz cut, her youthful appearance and spirit contrast the mature
depth of her vocals.

She seems to gain confidence, and
therefore volume, after her first few songs and we respond with our applause.
She does a freewheeling country number called “Nova”, with lyrics like “Turning
English into cash…Turning pesos into gas” fused over an upbeat guitar rhythm.
The song tells a traveler’s tale about the car breaking down in Mexico. Later,
Amelia later tells me this references her mom’s joke that “they don’t sell
Nova’s in Mexico
because ‘no va’ means it’s not going anywhere!” I’m impressed to see some
women, including the older dames, dancing in the back. It’s been a while since
I’ve seen women with more years than my mom moving their hips like this.
Meanwhile, a small woman in a green sweater scurries around serving pasta and
more beer – lots of it.

Besides the natural ease with which she
performs, Amelia is uniquely appealing in that she rides a perfect balance of
humility and assurance. When she plays the guitar solos, she speeds up
slightly, moving through them with quick nods of her head as though hesitating
with the boldness of her fingers on the strings. Yet each time she finishes a
song and the women stomp and clap and yell “Guapa!” at her, her enjoyment
unfolds in the form of a wide smile and easy laughter. An incredibly talented
and yet visibly down-to-earth woman who tells stories and corrects her own
Spanish between songs, Amelia is a real gift to this audience.

Photo: Laura Merayo

Amelia Ray also sings with her eyes. She has this
captivating, dark-eyed gaze that lights up when she laughs, which is often, and
intensifies when she sings about pain, love, social issues. She estimates that
about a third of her songs are threaded with the latter. It is these pieces
that truly embody the complexity of her words. For example, during one of the
most lyrically intense moments of the evening, a song called Eldoret that appears on her new album,
Amelia sings the following: “Don’t burn this building down/ There are children
inside/This has the trappings of another genocide.”

A few days later, I’m sitting in Amelia’s apartment/studio,
where she claims to have locked herself in to finish the new record, titled
“On”. This will be her seventh album, which Amelia has been writing, recording,
and producing in her home. We’re rapping about Brian Greene’s account of string
theory in the Elegant Universe, and I
notice that in addition to lots of books, Amelia has newspapers piled around
the place.

She tells me that often, tragedies she reads about in the
news inspire her to craft a song, as was case with Eldoret. The title refers to a town in western Kenya where
ethnic violence recently erupted after the much-disputed presidential election. It was
there on January 1, 2008, that a church was attacked. It was full of people who
had taken refuge from the violence when an angry mob poured gasoline around it
and set fire to the building. As Amelia’s lyrics reveal, dozens of people
burned to death inside.

One of Amelia’s favorite female
vocalists, Chaka Kan, declared, “Being a singer is a way for
me to get to a platform to do more.”
Some of our bravest musical teachers, from Dylan to Lennon,
took the responsibility to respond to the world’s violence, prejudice, and
inequality with their voices. Amelia’s songs exhibit not only unwavering
strength and vocal clarity, they also impart an important message. Her words are laced with honesty and
compassion, and cut deep into the hearts of her listeners.

I inquire about whether Amelia, who got her first guitar
from Wal-Mart at the tender age of seven, has always played the kind of
soulful, bluesy rock she’s playing now and she shrugs. “I mean, did you ever
play, you know, heavy metal or something?” I joke. “Yeah,” she answers
seriously, “I played in a metal band for a while. We did Poison covers and
stuff.” I didn’t detect any metal vibe during her Entredos show, yet her
agility for musical cross-breeding is evident. She draws from funk tunes to
blues classics to folk, all fused with country-twanged rock and roll. Amelia
says that at the root of things, “I’m always trying to make good old finger-snapping
music…that makes you move your feet.” A further testament to her diversity and
talent, Amelia also plays bass, percussion, drums and organ, but don’t take
this girl’s gee-tar away. When I ask if she ever sings without it, Amelia gives me a
horrified look and murmurs, “I might feel naked”.

Amelia is a mainly self-taught
musician who first began singing in her church choir. When? “As soon as I
learned to talk,” she smiles, explaining that she grew up going to church at
least once a week. It’s no wonder Amelia’s parents are from the American south,
because the girl’s got soul. She was born in San Jose,
California, and grew up in the Bay Area before
moving around to Washington D.C.,
New York, Austin,
and to farther corners including the Netherlands and France. How did Amelia end up in Madrid? “A friend’s free
sofa,” she laughs. That was two years ago, and she hasn’t been back to the U S
of A since.

Her new album “On” will be released on April 22 and will be
for sale on, and itunes. Better yet, pick it up at her
live gigs – Amelia has one slated for April 23 at the Juglar in Lavapies. She
will share the stage with her band, The Conjugal Experiment, which includes
Mari-José Estivariz on bass, Jorge Perez on drums and bass, and Alejandro Nieva
playing sax. They have been playing together as a quartet since late last year.

What would Amelia be doing if she weren’t one of Madrid’s most interesting new artists, as declared on Spain’s Radio 3 recently? “I wanted to be an
astrophysicist,” she confides. Luckily for her fans, Amelia failed pre-calc
three times and plans to stay in Madrid “until the good luck runs out.”

Photo: Laura Merayo

I ask Amelia about the benefits of playing music in Madrid as opposed to America and she laughs, “There
aren’t one hundred me’s there”. She is humbly referencing Spanish fans’
appreciation for her lyrical depth and originality, especially considering the
uniqueness of hearing talented live rock and folk music with so much soul here in Spain. In this otherwise
predictable scene, Amelia is definitely a “Ray” of light.

Another Madrid Secret: Casa Tortilla, Unlimited tapas and drinks for 12 Euros!!!

Restaurant/Bar: Casa Tortilla

Calle Hartzenbusch, 6

Hours: Mon-Thurs, 8 – 23:45h; Fri & Sat, 8 – 00:30h
Metro: Bilbao
T: 914 454 176
*Although you typically have to make reservations three weeks in advance (especially for large tables), for smaller groups a few days is sometimes sufficient. Minimum four people.

Believe it or not, tackiness is actually an admirable quality at Casa Tortilla. In a world of chirpy “Ikea” colors and hyper-contrived coordination, this joint stands alone – homely and proud. All surfaces here are tiled and from the center of the restaurant, I easily spy five distinct styles of these ceramics – each one clashing more severely with the last. Did some malevolent interior decorator plot this atrocity? Surely, sheer probability can’t account for something this incongruous. I’m stupefied.

The 5-euro still lifes slapped on
the wall, the plastic flowers on the shelf, and the hand-painted octopus on the
front window only exacerbate this endearingly cutre
(tacky) quality. This, my friends, is not
the “well-heeled” environs of classier establishments like Txirimiri; this is a gorgeous hole-in-the-wall and has a power all its own.

Can other restaurants boast
being consistently booked nearly a month in advance? Do they fill to capacity every noon and
evening? What does Casa Tortilla have
that others don’t?

Simple: they charge only twelve euros for unlimited
alcohol and tapas. While other
restaurants starve you with their high-brow, gourmet, minimalism, this divine
dive satiates you with its low-brow, gourmand…uh… “maximal-ism”. Pardon the liberties I take with the language.

Predictably, Casa de Tortilla is
primarily a place for students and savvy travelers. You can cheaply feed large numbers of
friends before the marcha (nightlife) begins.
Upon being seated at 21h, the food and drink begin and won’t stop until
at least midnight. Pitchers of beer and
sangria seem endless and a constant procession of tapa platters delight the
those with big appetites: jamon, croquetas, patas bravas, solomillo, pimientos
de pádron,
and, of course, tortilla.

The festive atmosphere is evidence
by signs throughout the restaurant that read “Prohibido Cantar” (no singing).
When was the last time you were in an establishment that had to make explicit
rules against singing?

Bursts of laughter, bouts of
applause and a never-ending torrent of chatter are intensified by the
reverberating tiles. Hint: this isn’t a
place for a romantic first date.

And of course everyone is
contentedly eating and drinking. Some of
the above-mentioned menu items may be more familiar than others, but all are
delicious staples of the Spanish diet. While
the croquetas may look like common-place Tater Tots, their béchamel-filled interior
will make you an instant addict.
Béchamel, a French sauce of flour, milk, and spices, has the gooey
decadence of melted cheese. Yum!

Ingeniously seasoned with garlic,
sherry, and sweet paprika, solomillo
warrants more than a single helping and another Spanish treat is the pimiento de pádron. This dish consists solely of fried green chillies. Not only is it shocking how tasty such simplicity
can be, there is a further surprise. To
eat them is to play culinary Russian roulette – some are merely
sweet while others pack enough spice to send you guzzling the pitcher of
sangria. Hoarding the sangria would
normally be frowned upon by friends, but in Casa Tortilla’s “land of plenty”,
no one cares – hoard away!

As the night progresses, the
scene only gets more intriguing. I am
interrupted by a beautiful, young Spanish woman. “I
don’t know what you’re writing,” she says in perfectly polite Castellano, “but
I hope you aren’t forgetting to mention all the guapas (lovely girls) here tonight.”

“And you’re heading to the clubs
later, no?” I reply, “You’d never dress
so well for an antro (hole in the
wall) like this”

“Of course!”, she smiles.

She’s right – the women, prepared
for a night on the town, stand in exquisite relief to their common

And still more chaos erupts. As I stand talking to a group of charming
students from California’s wine country, a strapping Spanish lad at the table
behind us begins shouting at maximum volume in broken English, “Hey, Hey, I have to tell world: I
am bisexual! Me bisexual!” I don’t know
what inspired this revelation. Was it
that extra glass of sangria? A particularly
hot chilli from the pimiento de pádron?
At any rate, several of us applauded his realization. One can only be happy that his experience at
Casa Tortilla brought him one shade closer to himself. Come and partake – you never know what 12-euro
epiphanies await.