The singing starts almost immediately, the voice deep and sultry, picking through blues songs in random one- or two-line bursts.
It seems a little incongruous that the woman making our sandwiches in a tidy deli called Dubbel Dutch — its storefront painted orange, its shelves neatly lined with packages of stroopwafel and windmill cookies — has a voice like a cheery, slightly sanded-down Janis Joplin.
It turns out that Eef — like Cher, first name only — does more than run this little eatery and Dutch-imports grocery in north Denver, a couple of blocks from Regis University. A singer-songwriter and guitarist who sends out smoky-hot licks from a bright-red Gibson, Eef plays with several bands around town on a regular basis and is headed for the second time to the Memphis-based International Blues Challenge.
Originally from Holland, the statuesque Eef — who looks considerably younger than the age she doesn’t want to reveal — was working as a global program manager for the software division of Hewlett-Packard when she was sent to Fort Collins on assignment in 1999.
“I really fell in love with the area, and the blues scene here is awesome,” she says. “There’s not the competition. It’s more like you get support, and it’s all friends and family.”
Eef says she always wanted to play the blues (“I don’t know why, but that’s what comes out of me”), but back in Holland, her all-female band, Eelske Medde (it means “naughty girl” in Dutch), focused on Top 40 pop. “We did a lot of Madonna,” she says.
She grew up listening to classical music thanks to her grandmother, who sang soprano in her own choir, played piano professionally and was a piano teacher. “I wouldn’t say I had this big musical family, but my dad played piano, too,” she says. “So I had to take piano lessons, which I hated, from about the age of six or seven. I always saw myself on the saxophone,” she adds. “One of these days, maybe.”
Her parents also made her play the recorder, a move that sidelined her musical career for several years. “I really hated that, so at about age twelve, I stopped playing music altogether,” she says. “I don’t know why the recorder even exists; it’s a terrible thing.”
More than a decade later, Eef met a guy, and he played guitar. “So I started playing guitar,” she says. “I learned it to impress him, really. I bought an acoustic guitar and had it sitting in the corner, you know, so it would look cool.”
She found that she loved playing guitar, but what she really wanted was an electric one. “The guy was in a band, and one night at a show, his rhythm guitarist couldn’t play, so I stepped in. And that was it — I loved it.”
Eef didn’t realize she could be a blues singer until she started jamming around Denver in the mid-’80s. “First, people were like, ‘Let the girl lead,’ and then they were like, ‘Let the girl sing.’ I was really afraid of singing. I didn’t think I was any good, but now I love it.”
In 2009, several musicians — all Americans — with whom she’d been jamming regularly started talking about forming their own band, and Eef and the Blues Express was born. The six-member group plays two or three times a month around the metro area, offering traditional blues with elements of funk and soul. “I call it funky or groovy blues,” Eef says. “It’s blues with a twist. I’ve had a few people call it ‘Eef blues.’”
The current incarnation of the Blues Express includes drummer Tim Molinaro, bass guitarist Glenn Tapia, keyboardists Jimmy Ayers and Scott Hackler, and saxophonist Ken Johnston. Their songs — written mostly by Eef, with a few from other bandmembers — have a playful quality, with strong guitar work, zippy sax lines, and lyrics that can catch you off guard. For instance, “The Elword Blues,” from last year’s All Rivers Run to the Sea, ends with “If you don’t treat her right, oh, I’m pretty sure your sister will.”
Although the band has recorded four albums, “I’m hiding the first one,” Eef says, grimacing. “It’s not good.” The Blues Express has regular gigs at El Chapultepec in Denver, the Toad Tavern in Littleton and the Rusty Bucket in Lakewood; the group also plays at the annual Greeley Blues Jam and the People’s Fair. In December, Eef and company recorded for the Denver Loft Sessions, a program hosted by Denver 8 TV, and last year they represented the Colorado Blues Society in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. They’ll open for Michael Hornbuckle and Austin Young on January 22 at the Oriental Theater.
In addition to playing with the Blues Express, Eef is half of a duo (with vocalist Stacey Turpenoff) called Eef of Destruction, which performs in small clubs and on restaurant patios in the summer, and she also fronts a trio with a rotating roster of musicians.
And then there’s the deli.
“When I came to Denver on assignment, I missed my Dutch food real badly,” she explains. In 2001, while still working for Hewlett-Packard, she set up a website to sell foods imported from Holland, connecting Denver’s Dutch community with a steady source of kaas (cheese) and baked goods. “I thought, ‘Oh, let’s see how far we can get with this,’” Eef says. “Then when HP started laying off people, I decided to quit my job and open a store and play music.”
Dubbel Dutch opened in 2003 and immediately developed a Dutch following — expats looking to get their Gouda fix. The freezer holds herring, and rows of penny-candy jars display licorice and other sweets from the Netherlands. Eef comes up with creative sandwich combinations — such as roasted turkey with Brie, walnuts, roasted red peppers and pesto — on her visits back home and encourages customers to request their favorite Dutch treats.
“It’s a lot of work, doing the store and being in several different bands,” says Eef, who also has a ten-year-old son. “I do work a lot of hours, but the music gives me so much energy that even when I get tired, my spirits stay up.”
Eef and the Blues Express play the Oriental Theater on Friday, January 22, with Austin Young and Michael Hornbuckle.