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Winning the Blues

Deborah Coleman
Ruling the Roost: Deborah Coleman knows that a woman's place in the blues is front and center.

Deborah Coleman's newest can't lose

By Nicky Baxter

WHEN THE blues was young and spry, black women ruled the roost. Names like Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Mae Alix and, leaping forward in time, Big Maybelle and Koko Taylor flashed on marquees alongside or above those of their male counterparts. Eventually, however, blues sisters began pulling a virtual disappearing act.

The arrival of Elvis, Pat Boone and the like signaled the end of an era--or so it appeared. Enter guitarist, singer and songwriter Deborah Coleman, who, if her debut album on Blind Pig is any indication, just might turn the genre's gender tide.

I Can't Lose doesn't attempt to replicate ancient history. Coleman's style, while respecting the past, is thoroughly contemporary. Initially an R&B bass player, Coleman switched instruments when she heard Jimi Hendrix working over his guitar. Ironically, Coleman's interest in the blues came circuitously. It was the mutated blues music of Cream and Led Zeppelin (as well as Hendrix) that led the native Virginian back to her roots.

All of those influences are revealed on I Can't Lose. Songs such as the self-penned "The Man Is Mine" and "Feelin' Alright" show off the guitarist's dexterity at churning out uptown R&B replete with pungent guitar riffs--as well as her husky alto singing voice. Coleman's approach to guitar playing is aggressive. At times her attack is reminiscent of Albert King's; at others, it displays a touch of T-Bone Walker.

Unlike, say, Buddy Guy, however, Coleman rarely overplays and never allows histrionics to get in the way of a good song. On the title track, her guitar is hotter than the devil's workshop. Once the groove is established, Coleman and her backup players (guitarist Paryss, bassist Chuck Webb and drummer Slam) kick the tune into overdrive.

On the Chicago-styled "Brick," Coleman's fingers nimbly scurry up and down the fretboard with the assurance of a blues veteran who has spent sometime in jazzland. Coleman's updated version of Billie Holiday's "Fine & Mellow" is just that.

Compared to the numbers on the singer/guitarist's 1994 album, Takin' a Stand, the material on I Can't Lose clearly represents a step up in songwriting, arranging and production values. Moreover, Coleman sounds much more confident--the album's title is a clear declaration of intent.

Coleman's lyrics turn the tables on the blustery mannish boys ruling the roost presently; she can dish it out as ruff as any grizzled king bee. She doesn't back away from confessing her sexual desires, as "Roll With Me" makes plain, but as she shows on "My Heart Belongs to You," she isn't bashful about trying a little tenderness.

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From the April 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro

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