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A Geyser of Blues Notes

[whitespace] Ray Bailey Rooting for the Blues: Ray Bailey is equally at home playing free jazz and Delta blues.

The Metro Fountain Blues Festival looks to the future of the genre with Deborah Coleman and Ray Bailey

By Nicky Baxter

IN YEARS PAST, the Metro Fountain Blues Festival has served up some of Northern California's finest blues extravaganzas. This time around is no exception. The festival, now in its 28th year, boasts blues of every stripe, from headliner R.L. Burnside's electric Delta blues to Deborah Coleman's rock and funk-driven blues to Ray Bailey's street-corner blues.

If former sharecropper and fisherman Burnside represents the genre's treasured past, Coleman and Bailey both point to its future.

Coleman is a rarity: a young African-American blueswoman who handles lead guitar. She came to the blues in a roundabout manner. As a youngster, she was hooked on the Beatles and Motown. Later, she became enthralled with British blues-rock bands such as Cream, the Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin. It was only a matter of time before she would trace those bands' roots back to the real thing.

Speaking from her home in Chesapeake, Va., the 40-year-old bandleader recalls listening to free-form radio in the late 1960s.

"When I was young," Coleman says, "I would listen to the radio and hear James Brown, Rush and the Temptations all on the same station. As I got older, I started listening to [Jimi] Hendrix, [Jeff] Beck and those guys." Strangely enough, the group that inspired Coleman to pick up the guitar was the Monkees, America's decidedly pre-fab answer to the Beatles. "I was only 8 at the time," she says, laughing sheepishly.

Coleman didn't get serious about her instrument of choice until she became a teenager. The guitarist soon found herself playing in show bands, R&B and rock units, learning the tricks of the mostly male trade along the way.

"Back then, there weren't many women playing guitar, so the guys put me on bass," she recalls. The feisty army brat didn't take to the demotion and within a year was back on guitar.

Coleman put her budding career on hold in the early 1980s to get married, earning a living as a nurse and electrician. Although she stopped performing on the road, she continued to play gigs on weekends with local groups, churning out everything from soul to C&W. "I got antsy," Coleman says. "I just had to go out and play."

Finally, in 1994, Coleman formed her own band, which she eventually dubbed the Thrillseekers. The current lineup consists of Warren Weatherspoon on drums, B.T. Richardson on bass and Billy Crawford on second guitar. That same year, Coleman secured a record deal.

If Taking a Stand (New Moon Records) revealed a blossoming talent, I Can't Lose (Blind Pig), her 1997 sophomore effort, demonstrated that her gifts as a guitarist were coming into full bloom.

The material on I Can't Lose encompasses everything from Windy City shuffles and smoldering ballads to razor-sharp R&B. Coleman's guitar playing is inspired throughout; although it is possible to detect the influences of past greats such as Albert King (check the title track's stinging lead work), Coleman's funky style is her own doing. Her vocal performance is somewhat pedestrian at times, but she more than makes up for it with eye-popping guitar playing.

Before we finish our interview, Coleman mentions that guitarist Ray Bailey and his band, in addition to doing a separate set at the festival, will also give her some music support. You couldn't ask for better "backup."

BAILEY IS something of an anomaly: a guitarist and singer equally adept at playing free jazz and blackbelt Delta boogie. Predictably, the Watts, Calif., native has received more recognition in Europe than he has in his own back yard. This despite the fact that he has worked with such legendary figures as LaVerne Baker, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and Horace Tapscott.

Bailey began picking out melodies on piano at age 2. By the time he was 14, Bailey had switched to guitar, backing up the national acts in neighborhood clubs. When I ask him how a high school kid wound up performing with the likes of Lowell Fulson, he maintains it was no big deal: "They needed a guitarist, and I could play."

The years he spent as a self-proclaimed "hired gun" were invaluable. "My biggest goal was to play any style with anybody," he recalls. When [fellow bandmembers] were out chasing women, I'd be up in my hotel room studying and practicing different things."

Bailey started playing, he tells me, "because I heard Wes Montgomery on the radio, doing things I'd never heard [before]." It wasn't so much Montgomery's style that appealed to him as it was his ability to move chords around and make octaves sing. Futuristic improvisational-music god Sun Ra also had a profound impact.

Today, Bailey is as much at home reeling off avant-bop jazz harmonics as he is delving into 12-bar blues--and points in between. Indeed, it is Bailey's wide-ranging background that makes Satan's Horn (Zoo) such a delight.

Though steeped in the blues, the album is littered with quirky twists and turns. On songs like "Miss Mean," Bailey's guitar states the shufflelike theme, then embellishes it with chunks of chordal work. A stuttering rush of descending notes marks the tune's wild finish.

The title track commences with gently fluttering, slightly dissonant jazz guitar before mutating into a blistering, rhythmic groove. The lyric is as demon-possessed as any Robert Johnson number.

Though his playing is as modern as tomorrow, Bailey finds himself going back to the old masters for his own listening pleasure. "I can't get enough of guys like B.B. King, Eric Dolphy and [John] Coltrane. The new stuff I don't really like; it just doesn't have enough of the blues feel to it." He mentions certain very popular artists as particularly guilty of putting the blues on the back burner. "My whole thing is to fit the blues into whatever I'm doing," he asserts. "Whether it's a bossanova beat, rock or whatever, I go back to the roots."

Thankfully, roots is what the Fountain Blues Festival is all about; there'll be enough for anyone willing to let the feeling seep into the soul.

The Metro Fountain Blues Festival takes place Saturday (May 9), noon-7pm, in the fountain area at San Jose State University. Performers include R.L. Burnside with Kenny Brown and Cedric Burnside, the Tommy Castro Band, Eddie King and the Swampbees, Deborah Coleman, Barry Levenson with Sherry Pruitt and Edward Earl Thomas, and the Ray Bailey Band. Admission is free.

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From the May 7-13, 1998 issue of Metro.

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