Sara Lee has aged fabulously into the grande dame of rhythm sections. Beginning in 1978 with the Stilettos, a minor punk group, she has played bass with a large number of musically diverse acts, from Robert Fripp's The League of Gentlemen to Gang of Four, the B-52s and Ani DiFranco.
After more than 20 years, she decided to step front and center with her first solo album, "Make It Beautiful, on which she not only plays bass, but also sings lead vocals. The album is a collection of mid-tempo, tightly controlled and infectious funk. She said she settled on that style because groove-oriented music has always attracted her.
"I remember dancing around the house to James Brown's 'Sex Machine' when I was 15," Lee said, as she put on her makeup before her performance Wednesday night at Nietzsche's. "I thought it was the greatest, most exciting music around."
With lipstick expertly applied, she descended from the second floor in her trademark red leather shoes and strode purposefully toward the back stage. After a brief introduction, she launched into Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want To Be With You," which she recorded for "Forever Dusty," a tribute album to the soulful chanteuse. She slowed down the pace of the song, so that it became an ethereal and unrequited pining.
Guitarist Ann Klein thoroughly impressed the nearly 200-person audience, ranging from stately strumming during the ballad "I'll Wait For You" to the impassioned and gritty solo on "Hood Over Hood," one of two songs on "Make It Beautiful" with lyrics written by DiFranco. Klein's wah-wah-enhanced solo during the groups cover of Wendy and Lisa's "From Now On" sliced cleanly through the thick funk and stayed on the groove like a tattoo.
The crowd applauded politely and hung back from the stage, leaving a wide swath of dance floor. Though they had braved the brutal cold to attend the show, they turned tail when it came to strutting their stuff, preferring to sway beyond the glare of the stage lights.
After wrapping up a throbbing version of "Gone," the group, which also includes keyboardist Rob Arthur and drummer Joe Magistro, took a 30-minute break. Lee waded into the audience, chatting and signing autographs.
When they returned, they broke into the album's title track, which was also written by DiFranco. By this time, the audience became more socially lubricated and edged nearer to the stage, though dancing was restricted to small pockets of activity.
Klein stepped up to the mic to take a vocal turn on one of her own muscular rock songs, called "I Don't Care." They ended the set with "Come 'Round," a rousing musical workout which contrasted nicely with Lee's light and airy vocals.
The crowd, which shrunk slightly, demanded an encore and Lee obliged with the maximum groove of "Grace."
Opening and closing the show on the front stage was local singer-songwriter Rose Bond. Accompanied by John Allen on flute, saxophone and guitar and Edgar Henderson behind the upright bass, Bond's sweetly sad voice panned for nuggets of hope amid the desolate folk landscape of "Canal Street," the hypnotic "Dimestore Blues" and "Prisoner Of Time," the title track from her debut compact disc. Her second set consisted of jazz standards, including a simmering version of George Gershwin' "Summertime."
Wednesday night at Nietzsche's.