Lady, lay it on me

“I like to play that real loud, raucous music,” Caroline Dahl says in a hushed voice that’s lightly touched with a Kentucky drawl. We sit together in a quiet coffeehouse in a quaint San Francisco neighborhood; looking across the table at her thin frame and immaculately pressed business suit, it’s hard to believe Dahl is capable of throwing even a raucous Tupperware party. Yet she’ll be performing at the fifth annual Motor City Boogie-Woogie and Blues Festival this Saturday with Henry Butler, Kelley Hunt, David Maxwell and Martijn Schok; Funk Brother Joe Hunter will MC.

“I love to play that style. I love to pound out the music. That style demands to be played in loud bars and festivals. Sure, I could learn the jazz standards and play the kind of quiet venues that are looking for that, but that isn’t what turned me on to this in the first place. What turned me on to playing as a kid was that heavy, stomping rhythm of rock ’n’ roll. And that’s what still does. I still try to stay true to those first impulses.”

Dahl grows more and more animated, at one point hammering on the table with her hands, imitating the motions of the stride piano playing that has given her a wide reputation as a boogie-woogie pianist. Your first impression of her might be that of a delicate, gracefully middle-aged Southern belle, but when she sits down at the piano and gives in to her impulses, she sounds more like the ringleader of a rowdy Crescent City barrelhouse.

She rattles through an encyclopedic knowledge of early rock ’n’ roll piano greats, talking about her discovery of legends like New Orleans piano godhead Professor Longhair and the rambunctious, controversial Jerry Lee Lewis. Her ability to incorporate a wide spectrum of genres into the classic boogie style — which she claims to have discovered late in her career — has afforded her a national reputation.

“Boogie gets to be a real fun style when you get to have two hands going,” she says, again playing air piano over her latte. “There is something about the quality of that sound that I love. I try to stay fresh by playing other styles. I need to play hybrid things and a little bit of this and a little bit of that. When people see me play, they ask me a lot, ‘Don’t your hands get tired?’ But that’s never the problem. If I’m not trying to push the way that I play things and discover new ways of playing, it’s more of a question of letting my mind get tired.”

Her latest release, Night House, is a collection of nimble-fingered and nimble-minded works in which Dahl constantly pushes genre boundaries with a jaw-droppingly deft technique. Dahl’s pounding left-hand bass lines provide a stomping rhythmic anchor for her right-hand melodies, which, though rooted in the boogie-woogie tradition, constantly explore country swing, jazz, blues and New Orleans stride styles. The record is a testament to Dahl’s masterful piano playing — listeners can forget about classifying her as one of the best female boogie pianists, and instead call her simply one of the best boogie pianists, period.

“Even though it is getting better, I think there are still a strange amount of gender politics and preconceptions about women in music,” Dahl says. “People still think of women in music as singers. I can be at a party and introduced to someone and my friend will say ‘This is Caroline Dahl, she plays piano.’ Two minutes later the person I just met will ask, ‘So how long have you been singing?’ But things are getting better. The people I’ve played with over the years have gotten a lot savvier about those attitudes. I used to run into a lot of strange attitudes about women in music, but the people I play with now are a lot better about that.” And then she adds with a coy smile. “They can hear that I know what’s going on when I sit down and start playing.”


See the Detroit Boogie-Woogie and Blues Festival Saturday, Oct. 18, 7 p.m. at the Redford Theater, 17360 Lahser, Detroit. Tickets $25 at, Meijer’s or at the box office the day of the show; call 800-585-3737 or 313-537-2560 for info.

E-mail Nate Cavalieri at [email protected].