The Hippo


Nov 16, 2019








Honest Millie. Courtesy photo.

Honest Millie

When: Friday, Feb  10, 8 p.m.
Where: Spotlight Cafe, Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 S. Main St., Concord.
Tickets: $15 at
Also appearing Saturday, Feb. 4, 9 p.m. at Portsmouth Book & Bar

Swingin’ jazz
Harmony and hot playing from Honest Millie

By Michael Witthaus

 Honest Millie has harmony down six ways to Sunday. The  interplay between Val Blachly and Ellen Carlson is just the beginning, topped off nicely by Lee Anne Ames’s singing. Things really begin to pop when Carlson and Ames stitch their fiddle and saxophone together on top of the three-part vocalizing.

Layer upon layer, they build magic, on songs like Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” a 1936 Boswell Sisters hit, and other standards from the pre-WWII era. Buoyant and brassy, it’s a fuller sound than Blachly and Carlson’s old band, Sweet, Hot & Sassy. 
“Sassy tended to be a little spare,” Blachly said by phone recently. “We do a lot more jazz … it’s a much bigger sound.”
Given the band’s roots, this all adds up. Ames, on sax and clarinet, played in the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra and spent several years with the Lakes Region Big Band.  Keyboardist Agnes Charlesworth is a sound designer with film and video scores on her resume. Drummer Paul Wolf is currently a member of Jumbo Circus Peanuts, a 12-piece Seacoast ensemble with a penchant for 1920s music.
Guitarist Jim Prendergast toggles between New England and Nashville, where  he once led the house band at Opryland Hotel. These days, he’s an in-demand session player. He also runs a Portsmouth studio, where Honest Millie recently recorded a three-song demo.  He and Carlson played together in the bluegrass-centric EC & the Moonshiners, and he’s provided instrumental support for Sweet, Hot & Sassy’s annual holiday shows.
The band evolved out of Swing a Cat, a project Blachly started with Liza Constable in the mid-2000s. 
“We were looking for an instrumentalist, because the music we were collecting called for that,” Blachly said. 
Ben Baldwin, a musician friend from Maine, recommended Charlesworth. The music director at Plymouth State College found Ames for them. 
“I wanted someone who could improvise … be right out front with leads and taking breaks. She said, ‘I’ve got a perfect girl for you.’ That was Leanne,” Blachly said.
When Carlson saw Swing a Cat perform in Concord a few years back, she loved them and offered her services. The pivot to Honest Millie was soon complete. In January 2016, they began a monthly residency at Stone Church in Newmarket that lasted much of the year and will resume March 25. They’re booking shows into the summer. In the near term they perform Feb. 4 at Portsmouth’s Book & Bar event, and a Feb. 10 show will be their first at the Capitol Center’s Spotlight Cafe.
In early January, they played to a packed house at Nippo Lake. 
“People at the bar next door were standing in the doorway because there weren’t any tables,” Blachly said. “I was surprised, because that’s a bluegrass venue.”
Among the band’s set favorites are Gershwin’s “Summertime” with a calypso touch and the Delta Rhythm Boys’ “Undecided” rearranged as a three-part harmony. 
“‘Corcovaco’ is another one I really enjoy,” Blachly said, mentioning a more modern song in Honest Millie’s repertoire. “I love Latin music and it’s new to me in terms of playing it.”
Blachly and her bandmates remain transfixed with the Depression era, however. 
“The music was very light back then...,” Blachly said. “I had not really listened to a lot of music prior to the 1940s; then I met Liza. She turned me on to this stuff from 1930s.”
The band’s name sounds like it might come from a character in an MGM musical, but it’s a simpler story, Blachly said. 
“We hemmed and hawed and couldn’t come up with anything,” she said. “Then one day after Lee had been thinking about an aunt of hers, she suggested Honest Millie, and we thought it was just great.” 

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