Like a smoking stone
Eclectic blues guitarist Deborah Coleman comes to the Sierra Nevada Big Room
I suppose it had to happen that someday I’d wind up listening to—and digging—someone who’d been inspired to play guitar as a kid by seeing the Monkees on TV. (By way of some perspective, Memphis Minnie—the very first female blues guitar slinger/singer—was about 60 when lauded modern blues/rock guitarist Deborah Coleman was born.)
While the scrappy Minnie learned her musical lessons firsthand from such men as Casey Bill Weldon, of Memphis Jug Band fame, and Kansas City Joe McCoy, both of whom she married, when Deborah Coleman was 15 and playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band she got hooked on Jimi Hendrix, switched from bass to lead guitar and expanded her influences to include bands like Cream and the Yardbirds. These groups, in turn, led her to their sources: American blues men.
At 21, the Virginia native saw Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker in concert, which really impressed her; however, she put music on the back burner to raise her daughter and work as an electrician and nurse. She then joined an all-female rock band for a few years before a stint with an R&B trio. In 1993, she got a trio (her brother and a friend, both of them heavy metalloids) together, taught them some blues and entered the Charleston Blues Festival’s National Amateur Talent Search.
To say that she won is almost an understatement.
The festival’s artistic director had this to say: “Coleman ruled, delivering a bone-rattling set to a capacity audience that almost shut down the contest with their demand that she perform repeated encores.” First prize was six hours of studio time, which she used to record her first CD, 1994’s Takin’ a Stand. Soon, she was brought to the attention of San Francisco-based Blind Pig Records, with whom she now has four CDs out.
A powerful singer and guitarist, Coleman’s also a very accomplished songwriter whose focus, however, seems to be less on blues these days.
While her first CD, I Can’t Lose, featured seven blues (out of 10 songs), her latest, Living’ on Love, has just one. Even her promo material, which quotes a review in Living Blues that lauds her “fire-on-the-fretboard flamboyance,” mentions “Deborah’s complete mastery of both the rock and blues idioms” and that while some songs (on 2000’s Soft Place to Fall CD, where she gets killer backing by the late Luther Allison’s band) “take her from her blues roots … she can still serve up the blues as compellingly as any performer on the circuit today.” Indeed!
Of course this is a career path that any number of blues artists have followed. Bessie Smith, ‘the empress of the blues,” as she was so grandly and properly called during her heyday in the ‘20s and ‘30s, recorded more pop songs than blues. However, she earned her living on the vaudeville circuit, so that’s quite understandable. Even Big Joe Turner, for my money the best of the “blues shouters,” was fond of mixing a song like “Red Sails in the Sunset” in with the blues he learned as a youth in Kansas City. There is some pressure, understandably, to widen one’s audience by including material of a pop (as in “popular") nature.
If one were to select just the blues from Coleman’s four CDs, the result would be all that a 12-bar blues hound could wish, because she can give the format a serious working over. Of course some of the pop songs get a terrific groove going, too.
Her tune “You’re with Me,” from her latest CD, a song about being on the road and missing someone left behind, is set to a very infectious rhythm; but my money’s on her exceptional slide guitar rendition of Lowell Fulson’s “Bending Like a Willow Tree,” with this noteworthy advice: “If you don’t bend you’re gonna break.”
In a video interview, Coleman says, “I believe in keeping the traditions alive, but I also believe in takin’ it somewhere else. We have had our Bessie Smiths … our Albert Collins. … My responsibility is to, hopefully, bring something new to the blues.”
She can get down like Muddy and rip like Collins. I’ll be there with my fingers crossed.