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As the Saturday-night crowd gathers at the A Train Blues and Jazz Cafe, a live-music mainstay on the downtown strip in Delray Beach, a well-coifed gentleman approaches the back bar and poses a question that, in context, is not as funny as it sounds.
"Is the fiddle player here tonight?" he asks the bartender.
The diverse stable of regulars (who also congregate at O'Hara's on Las Olas most Thursdays) have come to ask for Randi Fishenfeld and her six-piece South Florida group, Blue Fire, by any appellation necessary. From sequined grandmothers to barely legal night crawlers -- not to mention the cast of beer-swilling, spritzer-sipping, martini-loving middle-agers in between -- the group has captured a wide demographic.
At the A Train, where Blue Fire has performed on weekends for the past two years, frequent fliers from as far away as New York City have called to reserve a weekend table. Invariably they ask if "the violinist" is playing.
"This band is incredible even without her," raves A Train manager Kelly Jackson. "But she's the attraction."
"When I first started working here, people would get up and leave if they found out she wasn't playing that night," adds Paula Burger, a weekend bartender at the A Train. "She directly affects my income. I make twice as much money when Randi is here. These people are in awe of her."
With bass player Richard Velasquez, keyboardist Wayne Muscarella, sax player Paul Berman, guitarist Nick Cucunato, and drummer Jonathan Joseph adding exceptionally seasoned talent, the group puts its unique stamp on everything from Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" to the Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Though featured on the R&B, jazz, and classic-rock pieces toward which Blue Fire leans, Fishenfeld is hardly the entire show -- but she obviously knows how to steal it.
Onstage the limited space with which she has to work often becomes hazardous for the nearest bandmate. "There have been a few times where the bow stops short in some fleshy part of [Berman's] body," Fishenfeld said. "When it happens, all I can think of is, I hope it's not an eyeball."
During one spellbinding ten-minute "Orange Blossom" medley, the classically trained Long Island native chooses the top of a runway bar to hush the room with strains of Bach. The next minute, she prowls the dance floor like some gypsy version of Mick Jagger while combining the "Flintstones" theme with a Serbian march. Slowly descending into a tight crouch, Fishenfeld loses herself in the emotion of a delicate note, only to explode seconds later into a knee-slapping country romp. No matter the piece, the animated redhead attacks her five-string electric violin with a fire so consuming that socially challenged men in the crowd will ask her if she ever has an orgasm while playing. Though Fishenfeld abhors the question, she does understand from where it comes.
"People are attracted to passion," says the 39-year-old, who started playing classical violin at age seven. "And the only way you can play with passion is if you're playing for yourself first. The byproduct, however, becomes this cycle of energy. The audience hones in, and there is this incredible channeling.... In that sense, it is like having amazing sex. It's like when you're with a partner who can read your body. All of the sudden, there's this swirling pleasure. It's the same thing happening psychologically, but without the physical stimulation."
For someone who ditched the classical sheet music and jammed to her older brother's rock and fusion albums whenever Mom and Dad left the house, such synergy would seem to come naturally. But seven years ago, the same woman who now leaps from chairs to tabletops stood in a formal gown onstage in upper New York with a group called Them Jazz Beards.
"The first time we saw her (in Florida), we couldn't believe how bawdy she was," says Fishenfeld's mother, Grace. "She's on top of the piano, on top of the bar, just as happy as can be. But back in those days, she played like an attorney."
Indeed she was one, working for the prestigious Buffalo firm of Philips, Lytle, Hitchcock, Blaine & Huber. But in the span of a few short years, Fishenfeld would not only go from practicing the law to "turning my back and farting on it"; she would find herself involved in a side project with the biggest man (outside of the Boss himself) in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.
Since the summer of 1998, Fishenfeld has performed occasional gigs with sax legend Clarence Clemons and his seven-piece Band of Faith. Instead of signaling her arrival as a professional, however, Fishenfeld's work with Clemons and the residual fits of ego it produced has served as continuing education for someone only six years into her full-time musical career.
"I was a pain in the ass," Fishenfeld admits. "I would get snappy and expect to get anything I wanted. After awhile, I started pissing people off.... I'm not totally there yet, but I am more sensitive to the people around me. It's not just about Randi anymore."