Deynn Hampton, Tadji Akhavan, and Steph Devine: Going from backup to first-string

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Backup vocalists don’t get much glory. Fact is, though, they can make a big difference. Imagine the Rolling Stones’ classic “Gimme Shelter” without Claudia Linear belting her lungs out behind Mick Jagger. Or Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty sans Rosemary Butler and David Lindley, especially on the smokin’ title cut and that incredible rendition of “Stay.” It’s folk in the background bringing serious firepower. Accordingly, dig three Twin Cities singers who back some serious names: Deynn Hampton, Tadji Akhavan, and Steph Devine.

Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé are at the club party “Urban Jazz Affair,” hosted by Babalú, 800 Washington Ave N., Minneapolis, 6:30-9:30 p.m., October 23. Sunshine Behavior are at Trocaderos, 107 Third Avenue N., Minneapolis, November 26, 8 p.m. The New Congress are next up at Bunker’s, 761 Washington Ave., Minneapolis, October 23, 9 p.m. You can catch Steph Devine any Thursday night with The New Congress at Bunker’s, across the street from Babalú. She performs solo on November 21 at the Cabooze for Pachyderm Studios’ Gathering of the Gifted CD release event. You can visit Tadji Akhavan at myspace.com/tadji and Steph Devine at myspace.com/devineisis.


Deynn (Dee) Hampton is with the smooth-jazz/neo-soul impresario Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé. Playing in that company is no small accomplishment. The first thing Ashby will let you know is that he’s discerning to a T. He insists on working with top-flight performers. That’s why Deynn was him at this summer’s Selby JazzFest and will be on his next album, which gets underway this winter.

Deynn has a blue-blood pedigree. She’s the daughter of percussionist Adeyemi Chaka. “I have,” she recalls, “for as long as I can remember, wanted to sing at a [professional] level. I watched artists and listened to music—studying notes, beats, memorizing sounds and different ways to use my instrument.”

Said instrument is a voice of power, clarity, and style. Not surprisingly, she cites Sarah Vaughn as an influence. With Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé, Deynn has been at the Fine Line, Rossi’s, and Babalú. She’ll be with them for their eagerly-awaited return to Babalú. It’ll be an evening in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District you don’t want to miss. The club’s casually sophisticated ambience is perfect for Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé, who will be working with a full complement. Deynn. Probably saxmeister Willie Moore, too. Hopefully there’s space on the set list for Deynn to sing lead on Floetry’s “Late.” If they haven’t done that song by the second set, say something.

Blithe spirit Tadji Akhavan is in the catbird’s seat as well. She didn’t make it onto solid-rocking Sunshine Behavior’s debut Sunshine Behavior, but she’ll be on stage when they hit Trocaderos on November 26 for the CD release concert. Look for the gal having the time of her life. “It is so exhilarating,” she says, “to get lost up there and forget about everything but the sound and how it makes you feel, where it takes you. It’s just crazy. If you really let yourself go, your nerves fall away and all you’re left with is this rush of happy.” Told you she’s a blithe spirit.

She was around for some of the mixing of Sunshine Behavior, moonlighting from her band Carpe Diem. Before breaking up, Carpe Diem called IPR (Institute of Production and Recording) home base—so naturally, Akhavan knows her way around a studio. “I definitely learned about volume control in the studio versus on stage. I became more aware about the progression of ideas—how different the end result can turn out [from a song’s original concept].”

So (you know you want to ask), what kind of name is Tadji Akhavan? Happens to be Persian. She brightly volunteers that “Harley Wood of Sunshine Behavior calls me the Incomparable Lady Tadji. I think he stole the name from a drag queen. I guess I would go with Tadji Akhavan.” Like I said, you shouldn’t have any trouble picking her out at Trocaderos.

Steph Devine has bolted out of blue, making a name for herself like it’s is easy as falling off a log. A few years, nobody had the faintest notion she was alive. Now, she’s emerged as an established backup vocalist and is about the business of going solo. She’s sung with Desdamona, Down Lo, Erica West, and The New Congress (TNC), among others.

Hasn’t hurt, of course, that she manages powerhouse R&B rockers TNC. It’s helped keep her in the thick of things with a solid, rising profile. She’s on their first album Everybody Gets Up! and the brand new one, Woman Is God. In one of her more prominent solo showcases, Devine sang at the recent She Rock Festival. Comparing singing backup to singing up front, she reflects, “It requires concentration. It’s different. For example, [TNC front man] Orange tends to sing a bit behind the beat, which means our harmonies have to match. I not only have to be aware of my actual note coming out right, it has to match when it’s coming out. In addition to that, each singer has a different tone. You have to learn how to match the lead singer’s tone. The approach is to be a good listener and make sure you know the material.”

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Dwight Hobbes on Wenso Ashby and Zsamé; Sunshine Behavior; and The New Congress.