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[whitespace] Deborah Coleman
Photograph by Mark Norberg

Living her dream: Four-time W.C. Handy Blues Award nominee Deborah Coleman will perform June 24 at the Russian River Blues Festival.

Blue Steel

Deborah Coleman spearheads wave of young female artists

By Greg Cahill

"I'VE ENVISIONED myself as a live performer since I was a little girl, since I first saw the Monkees on TV," says mid-30ish blues phenomenon Deborah Coleman with a laugh. "Blame it on the Monkees--and they didn't even play their own instruments."

As a singer, songwriter, and guitarist extraordinaire, the super-talented Coleman has become the poster girl for the new blues woman--a role that brings her June 24 to the sixth annual Russian River Blues Festival's daylong program spotlighting women making a splash in the traditionally male-dominated genre. Along with such relative newcomers as Shemekia Copeland--the awesome gut-bucket blues singer and daughter of the late blues legend Johnny Copeland--Boston blues belter Susan Tedeschi; guitarists Sue Foley and Debbie Davis; and keyboardist Dona Oxford, Coleman is in the forefront of a wave of young women making their mark on the blues.

USA Today hailed her as "a fiery guitarist . . . who makes the spine tingle with her unbridled raw energy" and noted that Coleman is "one of blues music's most exciting young players."

Nominated this year for the fourth time for a W.C. Handy Award, Coleman has a red-hot new album, Livin' on Love (Blind Pig) that is garnering rave reviews. Produced by Jim Gaines--known for his work with Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Huey Lewis & the News--the album showcases Coleman's considerable songwriting talent.

"That's one of my gifts, and I like to do it," she says modestly, during a phone call from her home in Virginia, "so I figured I should squeeze a couple of months out of the year to work on songs."

The effort has paid off. But the real buzz about Coleman these days is her kick-ass guitar playing onstage, which has drawn favorable comparisons to Vaughan's. "Oh, well, that's one of my favorite things to do, playing live," she explains. "I get in the zone, if you will, and who knows how long it will last. It gives me chance to cut loose, whereas I wouldn't normally on a record.

"I love it."

HER INTRODUCTION to the blues guitar came via a circuitous route, not through the great Delta bluesmen but rather from '60s rock icons. At age 15, Coleman began performing with a series of rock and R&B bands. She started out as a bass player but, after hearing Jimi Hendrix, switched to lead guitar.

"Back then, the formats of the radio stations were more diverse," she recalls. "I remember hearing Joe Cocker, James Brown, Ray Charles, and the Beatles on the same station."

As her interest in guitar grew, she began listening to British rock groups such as the Yardbirds, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, and followed the roots of their music back to the blues. "Jeff Beck was one of my favorites," she says.

"I didn't find out until later that they were doing blues tunes, and I went to find the original artists."

She hit pay dirt at age 21 while attending a concert that featured Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker all on the same bill. "I will never forget that show! At the time I was still doin' rock, but I said, 'Damn! That is cool, y'know!' "

As for the newfound interest in the ladies of the blues, Coleman says it's about time the blues community--and especially blues promoters--loosened up and began appreciating female performers. "Everyone will get to see these women doing their own brand of the blues or, in my case, blues roots-rock. We've had our little affairs with the rock, country, and jazz worlds, so why not the blues?" she asks.

"I mean, you can probably count on one hand the number of women who have made a name as blues guitarists. But it's finally happening in the blues world. Even in the early 20th century, only Memphis Minnie gained a reputation as female guitar player, and she never got the recognition she deserved. Now here we are 80 years later and I'm just glad to be in a position where I'm allowed to be seen more. So I'm just grateful for that.

"Who knew?

"I just wanted to play guitar, write songs, and make records.

"It's working and it's great. It's beautiful."


Photograph by John Halpern

Festival Schedule

The sixth annual Russian River Blues Festival is awash with talent. On Saturday, June 23, the two-day festival kicks off with "Blues Is a Woman," featuring Etta James & the Roots Band, Shemekia Copeland (triple winner at this year's prestigious W.C. Handy Blues Awards), Deborah Coleman, Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys, and Lady Bianca. On Sunday, June 24, the men get their due with an impressive program featuring Keb' Mo' (above), guitarist Lucky Petersen, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Roomful of Blues, the Persuasions, and Sy Klopps. The concerts, beginning at 11 a.m. each day and emceed by deejay Bill Bowker, will be held at Johnson's Beach in Guerneville. Advance tickets are $40 each day or $75 for a two-day pass; tickets at the gate are $45 each day or $85 for a two-day pass. 510/655-9471.

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From the June 21-27, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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