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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."
Fishenfeld credits Clemons with a significant part of that maturation process. The two first crossed paths while Fishenfeld was still playing with Pamela Stanley, a Vegas-trained pianist who gave the violinist her first break one year after she moved from Buffalo to South Florida. The owner of the Palm Beach nightspot 251 (where Stanley's band had been performing) invited Fishenfeld to sit in on the drummer auditions Clemons was holding for his new band.
What Fishenfeld didn't know was that Clemons wanted to add another piece to the group. Though he wasn't specifically looking for a violin player, he nonchalantly turned to Fishenfeld, who was sitting in the back of the club, and said, "So, I hear you play a little fiddle?" When she hit the stage and added a raunchy blues solo to the classic "Summertime," Clemons was sold.
"She reminded me of myself when I was younger with her energy and approach to the music," says Clemons, who lives in Singer Island. "I knew she had the capability to find the parts I wanted her to play. And I wanted her to add her taste to the sound."
Clemons's old-school, soulful approach to the material was music to Fishenfeld's ears; she was tiring of the torch songs and breezy New Orleans jazz for which Stanley was known. By the end of 1998, Stanley would leave the band that would ultimately become Blue Fire and pursue a solo career. But she quickly recognized what Clemons had done for Fishenfeld.
"Randi started to count more on her virtuosity than her entertainment factor," Stanley recalls. "In the beginning she used all her wildness -- bending backwards, running all over -- while her chops were coming to speed. Now, her chops are as great as her entertainment ability. What Clarence did was give her the credibility she wanted."
It also prompted Fishenfeld to become more assertive at the same time as Blue Fire -- which she and Velasquez founded -- embarked on its journey. Though the group quickly gained a following at O'Hara's, Blue Fire went through more than its share of growing pains. At one point, Velasquez gave his notice, telling the rest of the band he was tired of baby-sitting.
"Every band needs something visual, and we have that with Randi," says Velasquez, who played with Fishenfeld in Stanley's band. "But for a long time, I was the go-between. Other members felt Randi was stealing the show, and they wanted to know where they stood. The other problem was that every time the Clarence thing would arise, Randi's ego would rise along with it. You get flown around and chauffeur-driven to gigs, it can go to your head. We had several confrontations because of this."
Whether the lure of playing with Clemons will ultimately fracture the foundation of Blue Fire remains to be seen. Currently Blue Fire is working on its first CD, a collection of original material along with distinct covers of such songs as the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby." In the meantime Clemons is working at home on material for the Band of Faith. He hopes to follow an album with a tour.
"Putting a band together is like making a gumbo," Clemons says. "You add the spices to make it taste the way you want. With this band, the stew is brewing. It'll be ready to serve in about a year." Though Clemons expects Fishenfeld to be committed to nothing more than her violin -- "I encourage her with all her music; that's where growth comes from" -- a fork in her professional road could loom. Would she leave Blue Fire if Clemons follows through on the Band of Faith project?
It's a potentially explosive question -- and one Fishenfeld refuses to go near. For now, especially because her work with Clemons has been so scattered, Fishenfeld's focus is on Blue Fire, completing the CD, and further exploring an identity she has only recently come to accept.
"There was a point where I had no Velcro to my life," she said. "None of my achievements seemed to form a foundation. Each time out, it was about proving myself all over again. But I've come to understand that I'm a hard-edged, wild, and crazy performer who wants to be a rock star."