"Guacamole!" exclaim two women at a local Starbucks. They're not trying to place a special order; local blues legend Sonny Hess and award-winning bass player Lisa Mann (who was greeted by Hess with a hand squeeze and a kiss on the cheek) are celebrating the fact that the previous evening, Hess was able to enjoy eating something for the first time in a week and a half.
A staple of the Portland blues scene—and the founder of the Northwest Women Rhythm & Blues showcases—Hess was diagnosed with breast cancer on Oct. 16, underwent a mastectomy less than a month later and experienced her first chemotherapy treatment on Jan. 8 (the reason it's been hard for her to stomach a meal). To make matters worse, when she and partner Jamie Pemberton returned from a movie the night of her first treatment, they found their Fairview home in flames.
Hess and Pemberton have since moved from a Red Cross-funded hotel room to a friend's apartment—all while dealing with last week's snowstorm. But, instead of wallowing in misfortune, this blues guitarist/songwriter is moving forward.
Though she and Pemberton did not have renter's insurance, Hess' guitars and equipment were salvaged from the less-burned garage, and she's traveling to her home state of Idaho to borrow a family RV in an effort to save money on rent. But Hess knows that, though she's lucky to have it, her health insurance will not cover the entirety or last the duration of her treatment. Mann—who has cut her hair short to match Sonny's chemo-thinning look—puts it rather simply: "Twenty percent of a fortune is a lot." So, almost immediately after the fire, Mann opened an account, the Sonny Hess Fund, for donations at US Bank.
Hess has also managed to hang onto her sense of humor. Relaying the story of how a group of friends helped her and Pemberton rush their smoky clothes to a laundromat, she says, "Here's a blues song for ya: Duh nuh duh nuh/ I'm at the laundromat/ Duh nuh duh nuh/ I'm sick and it smells like shit." Mann, who's been playing with Hess for eight years and is a fixture at Hess' Women in Blues Revues (held at the Trail's End Saloon every Thursday), says that when she's contacting friends to elicit help, she feels like Sonny's story "sounds like a joke."
But the slew of musicians Hess has helped book shows and gain the courage to perform over the years know it's far from comedic, and they're coming together to help in every way they can. Mann is donating proceeds from her upcoming gig (Saturday, Jan. 27) at the Green Room directly to Hess. Sharon Flaherty, another friend, has organized a benefit and silent auction to help raise money. Hess says tragedy "makes you see a side of life you've never seen before...it awakens the heart of compassion." But Mann knows her friend is referring to her own compassion for others: "Sonny doesn't need people to feel sorry for her," Mann explains, "she needs them to give her a few bucks."
Lisa Mann plays at the Women Who Rock Showcase Saturday, Jan. 27, at the Green Room. 9 pm. $5. 21+. Sonny Hess plays every Thursday night at Trail's End Saloon in Oregon City. 8:30 pm. Free. 21+. The "From the Heart" benefit for Hess takes place Sunday, Feb. 11, at High Rocks Restaurant & Lounge in Gladstone.