NEPA continues it blues roots
First Posted: 2/2/2015
As far as the blues in Northeast Pennsylvania is concerned, Bill Coleman has had a foot in the game for arguably as long as anyone in the area. Coleman’s played just about every facet of the genre, as well.
After serving 20 years with NEPA’s Jeffery James Band, Coleman decided to form his own outfit around 2003; Funk ‘n Gumbo, which specialized in New Orleans-styled funk and blues. Eventually, the band changed its name to MOJOMO, which led to a meeting that would solidify Coleman’s current status on the NEPA blues scene – as bassist/vocalist and one-half of the duo The Soul Shakers, along with percussionist Sharon O’Connell.
“Sharon played drums in MOJOMO and we formed a pretty funky rhythm section,” explains Coleman of the connection with his Soul Shakers partner. As The Soul Shakers, the pair have recently been backing various artists at a series of blues jams – notably at venues like Mecca’s in Dunmore, and Arlo’s Tavern in Ararat, PA. The sheer electricity of these jams has seemed to signal a polar shift in the recognition of blues locally.
When the live shows for MOJOMO began winding down at the end of the band’s tenure, Coleman hooked up with area musicians Matt Bennick, Pat Marcinko, and ex-MOJOMO keyboardist Rock Belza in Matt Bennick and The Blues Mine, which had a successful four-year run.
“I then was picked up by Lee Delray, and I wound up going to Memphis with him and Sal Bucheri to compete in the International Blues Competition,” Coleman continues with the timeline that brought him and O’Connell together on a more permanent basis. “When we got back, Joe Kopicki tapped me for bass in his band and I recommended Sharon for drums – we’re still playing with Joe. Now, Sharon has been playing with Clarence Spady for a while, and she also plays with Souled Out. So, she’s somewhat rooted in the blues scene here.”
Coleman can’t toss enough positive commentary O’Connell’s way when it comes to musical synergy. He says that the pair are musically intuitive on the live stage.
“I think our individual styles clicked pretty well,” he admits. “People just love her. She’s a great drummer and she just exudes her love of drumming every time she gets behind the kit. Mostly, I’m just the guy on bass who happens to be playing along with her. She works hard and she’s gotten so damn good in the last few years – I just have a ball playing music with her. We listen to each other and communicate constantly on stage and can hit stops together, building dynamics without even thinking about it.”
As the blues jams have continued, they’re featured notable area talent and attention-grabbing names like Mike “Miz” Mizwinski and Stingray Delrpriore. Coleman and O’Connell have been having a blast backing such artists thus far.
“The idea is having a stable rhythm section backing many different guest hosts,” Coleman says of the blues jams. “It would be a different show, a different artist at every jam, and I thought audiences would enjoy that. So far they have, from the feedback I’ve gotten. Now, what that has done for us is make us perform at a higher level. You never know what’s going to be thrown at you. A lot of times the only info we’d get at the start of a song is its key- maybe we’d be told it’s a shuffle or a slow blues… and off we go!”
As Coleman’s stated, he’s been pleasantly surprised at the response to these jams – audiences have been packing the clubs and are being pulled in from beyond the usual limits of the area.
“We’ve had most of them at Arlo’s Tavern, which is a small venue in the middle of nowhere in Susquehanna County, and generally it’s been standing room only,” Coleman proudly tells. “We’ve had people come from the Stroudsburg area, Binghamton and Johnson City, Scranton, Pittston and Wilkes-Barre. Based on what I’ve seen, there is a healthy audience for blues in NEPA.”
Coleman goes on cite the bigger blues draws of the region as prime examples of the music’s power to attract.
“Mountain Sky has run a blues fest for the last couple of years at their venue and of course, Briggs Farm is the regional granddaddy of blues fests,” he notes. “In the Poconos, Michael Cloeren draws good crowds for the Pocono Blues Fest and as far as blues and roots music, the Honesdale Roots and Rhythm fest always has a great audience. There are people who want to hear this music because they feel it’s real music to them.”
Coleman does lament the sometimes maligned status of his beloved genre as a whole.
“I and others were quite annoyed that there were no blues categories at the Steamtown Music Conference last year,” he says. “Blues doesn’t get much press, not much radio play around here – not much recognition at all. It’s as if it’s underground music, but it does have a good audience.”
Not to misconstrue his feelings, Coleman prefers to dwell on the high points that his music’s brought him – the incredible depth of talent and musical challenge that the blues jams have brought for him and O’Connell.
“I’m constantly amazed that there are musicians who come to these jams, play with other musicians that they’ve never played with before, and produce music like it’s been rehearsed,” he begins, “it really speaks to the level of musicianship in this area. I’ve played with guys I’ve never heard of before playing with them at jams like Eric Brody- fantastic keyboard player, James Estes- young lap steel player, Clyde Rosencrance – another young guitarist, just to name a few. One moment that I especially enjoyed was when I asked a couple of players if they knew a Clapton song called ‘The Core.’ It’s not really a blues tune, but it’s a great jam song that lets a lot of players take solos. When we did that song and it sounded as good as it did, it made my night.”
Coleman gives warn recognition to the staff at Arlo’s including Frank Freno and A.J. Gallagher, both of whom Coleman points out as giving the blues jam idea a real chance. Because of this leap of faith on Arlo’s’ part, The Soul Shakers will be performing this summer on Main Street and the Honesdale Roots and Rhythm Festival, and notable upcoming backing gigs at Arlo’s soon with the likes of Stroudsburg’s Chris London from the Friar’s Point Band, Stingray Delpriore, Joe Libertucci and Steve Corcoran from the Cinder Brothers Band, and Randy Light. Whatever twists in this music are served to him, Coleman is happy to be a part of it.
“To me, all American music sprang from the blues,” he says. “I suspect that the blues in this area will continue as it has been, but I am happy to see that there are some younger players gravitating to it. Having an occasional article on a blues CD release or an up-and-coming blues artist like Jarekus Singleton or Eric Gales will help get the genre back in the public’s eye.”
Just don’t suggest to Coleman that any of the current radio-friendly, blues-tinged darlings of the hipster set are going to save the genre.
“The Black Keys – they do blues?” he asks with a sly grin.