Voices on Fire 

An evening of women's music, polished and raw

For singer-songwriter Nicole Roberts, tonight's (Friday, May 11) concert at La Peña Cultural Center with a stageful of singers celebrating the release of her Wildfire CD is a major event in her life. She will be there, but she won't be singing. "Singing was taking up too much of my life, and I've really taken a behind-the-scenes position," Roberts explains, "since finding that developing concepts is my favorite role."But if singing is no longer a major focus, Roberts has done everything else in connection with the new release. The compilation of songs by fifteen women musicians was a labor of love that she originally thought would take a couple of months, but instead consumed more than a year of her time and eventually spawned a spin-off CD. That effort, Rose Street Raw, produced by longtime friend Irina Rivkin of Berkeley's Rose Street House of Music, is also being celebrated tonight.

The two CDs give evidence of an ever-expanding talent pool of young women musicians, especially in the East Bay. While the studio-produced, mostly electric and rock band-oriented music on Wildfire is as polished as anything on commercial pop radio (it would fit comfortably in the midst of Tracy Chapman, Sheryl Crow, and Ani DiFranco), the Rose Street Raw CD is just as its name implies. Rivkin picked a mixture of live and studio tracks, with a solo and acoustic predominance, for a more intimate feel.

Both the CDs as well as the La Peña concert are fund-raisers for Rose Street's house concerts, and for Berkeley radio station KPFA-FM. In Roberts' view those two organizations are closely linked. She has long been a volunteer at Rose Street, and was a singer on Rivkin's recording of "Making Waves," a song created in protest of Pacifica Foundation's closing down KPFA two years ago. Out of that came the Making Waves a cappella group that performs tonight along with Gwen Avery, Erika Luckett, and the Shelley Doty X-tet.

Roberts was born in Marin County 25 years ago, and grew up in Redwood City. In high school, "I was always writing poetry in class, especially math class, when I was supposed to be listening to the teacher. It was important to me to sing, and as soon as I got my first guitar, I had to attach the words to music."

After earning an arts degree at San Jose State, Roberts had a residence in Redwood City, but "my life is all in the East Bay." She volunteered at Rose Street, and sang there and in other clubs, but soon found another love, photography. Which is why one of the special joys of Wildfire is the colorful CD booklet with Roberts' bold photos capturing the spirits of each of the singers.

"The psychology of photography and portraiture is something I love. People are trained from birth to put on a mask in front of a camera. And I have to be able to break through that. It's a very personal experience, and it was one of my motivations in doing this project."

The lyric content of Wildfire is dominated by love and relationships, with a couple of political tunes, notably Luckett's "Pennsylvania Avenue." Roberts sees the whole CD as a political statement. "I felt like I owed this community something, and this CD is my contribution. I picked the word 'wildfire' because I thought women singer-songwriters are spreading like wildfire."

Both CDs are available through their individual Web sites (rosestreetmusic. com and wildfirecd.com), at El Cerrito's Down Home Music, and at concerts by the CDs' various singers.


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