It's been said that in order to truly sing the blues, it's necessary to have experienced a lifetime of blues material — a broken heart, tragedy, hopelessness. So when you hear about an incredible blues musician, what usually comes to mind is an image of elderly Junior Kimbrough or Etta James. What rarely pops up is a 20-year-old woman from Tempe with flowing brown locks and tattoos. That girl is Sara Robinson, and your impressions will change after you see her perform.
People may assume that the blues come naturally to an older generation, but that isn't always the case. Yes, it's true that R.L. Burnside dealt with the murder of his family and poverty by the time he began recording in his mid-40s. But Howlin' Wolf started playing in the '20s, when he was just 20 years old himself. More than 80 years later, the blues are still circulating within the mainstream — especially among young performers.
Just a year ago in Tempe, Sara Robinson and the Midnight Special formed to show off its take on funk and blues combined with '60s and '70s rock — think Texas Roadhouse blues, instrumental jam sessions à la Led Zeppelin and smoldering vocals that echo Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks. Comprising Sara Robinson, guitarist Brandon Croft, drummer Evan Knisely, and bassist Brenden McBride, the band dropped a self-titled debut album in February that displays an articulate rhythm section, heavy slide guitar, prominent hooks, and large choruses.
The members' energy during performances derives from their similar musical roots, making for strong, organic live shows and a signature sound.
"Led Zeppelin is definitely one of our influences," says Robinson. "As are The Stone Foxes, the Black Keys, and Bonnie Raitt."
But how does a woman who isn't even allowed to drink alcohol already have an arsenal of jams about heartbreak and anger, passion, and hope that would be right at home alongside performers from some of the blues' most prolific decades?
"A few of the songs on the debut album — like, 'Come On Home, Boy' and 'Oh' and the second half of 'She Ain't Gonna Love You' — those songs were personal experiences for me that came from my heart," Robinson says. "And there are other ones I've written from somebody else's perspective, like someone in my real life, or characters in my head that I feel I can relate to."
The anthem "I Don't Wanna Die" chugs along with Wild West guitar riffing and a fuzzy backdrop to Robinson's wailing, defiant vocals. It's one of the angrier love songs on the album. And then there's something else that she dreams up completely, "Tell Me Baby."
"I was sleeping and came up with this melody. I woke up and recorded it on my phone," Robinson says. When asked if they are writing a second album yet, Robinson excitedly declares that she's been staying up late a lot, actually — which is her prime time to write.
"I think it really helps the morale of the band to continue to have fresh music. We've already got about four new songs, and we're thinking about cutting a second album soon."
The bluesy rock band already has garnered a following throughout Arizona and California, shared the stage with local favorites Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers and the Gin Blossoms, and has been touring all over the state to build a following in places like Flagstaff, Sedona, and Cottonwood.
"We have a few big showcases out this summer that we plan to really hype up, and we can't wait to get a tour going once we have a plan of attack in a big way," says Robinson.
Since the blues is an action and reaction as well as pain and relief, it's easy to imagine Sara Robinson and the Midnight Special having no problem making big things happen.