Featured interview – Gina Coleman

Cover photo © Roger Stephenson

imageBased out of the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, vocalist Gina Coleman and her horn band, Misty Blues, are a feel-good story in an industry crippled by chaos and disease. Instead of sitting on the sidelines during COVID-19 shutdown, they’ve gone to work, releasing three full-length CDs and steadily gained traction with airplay and positive reviews around the world.

But, as Blues Blast learned in a recent interview, none of it would have ever happened if Gina hadn’t started singing on a dare as an adult and then received unexpected praise from three of the brightest stars on Broadway and in Hollywood.

Bucolic Williamstown, Mass. — where the band was founded in 1999 — definitely isn’t a hotspot for the blues. It’s far better known as a hotbed for big-time theater and as a genteel locale where folk music fills the night air. It’s a peaceful, pleasant town that was something akin to a foreign land to Gina, too.

A New York City native, she grew up in the South Bronx not far from Yankee Stadium in a home filled with rhythm-and-blues, gospel and the sounds of reggaeton emanating from the large Puerto Rican community that once dominated the enclave.

The fact that Gina caught the blues in Williamstown is nothing short of a miracle, although, if things had been different, there might have been an outside chance she’d make a name for herself in gospel.

“At one point, my grandmother, Ruth, was considered to be an upcoming gospel star like Marian Anderson,” remembers fondly. “But I never heard her singing. By the time I came along, she was so busy raising her own children (and grandkids) that all of that left her.

“And I didn’t sing as a young child either. The singing part came after I graduated from college.”

Her interest in music developed thanks to her grandfather who bought her a piano at age she five and paid for lessons – “with Mrs. Horowitz” — for the next eight years. She picked up guitar around the same time on an on-again, off-again basis. “I didn’t start concentrating on that until recently,” admits Coleman with a chuckle, noting she performs on cigar-box today. “I wish I’d kept at it…I’d be almost a virtuoso by now…and I’m not!”

She’s been based out of the rolling hills in extreme northwest corner of Massachusetts since the mid-‘80s, when she enrolled in Williams College. Founded in 1793 — just 17 years after the American Revolution – and about 40 minutes due east of Albany, N.Y., it was the first university in the U.S. to offer financial aid through grants instead of requiring students to take out loans for tuition.

The first time she sang in public came after her graduation in 1990 when she was working in a residential treatment facility for emotionally and physically abused children. She joined a few of her co-workers and went to the nearby town of Pittsfield for a girls’ night out.

“They were telling me: ‘You really don’t know anything about the Berkshires because you’ve been in that ivory castle (Williams) for four years,’” she remembers. “It was a Wednesday night and we went out to a venue called La Cosina, which had an open-mic night. We went out for a few drinks and to hear some live music.

“After a couple of rounds of tequila, someone at the table dared me to get up and sing. I’m like…’I don’t sing.’ Then they double-dared me – and I also don’t pass up a double-dare!”

After all, she says, she had nothing to lose. “It was the first time I set foot in that place, and I was new to the area. I knew I never had to set foot in there again if I really bombed.”

Fueled by alcohol, Coleman launched into a take on Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz,” singing acapella – “and I won,” she says, still somewhat incredulous. “I won 75 dollars! That was a great night!”

imageSeven days later she returned for a repeat performance, but wound up singing with a stranger instead after another attendee, Dave Lincoln, approached her and said: “You’re the girl who won last week. Can we work up something together?”

Gina acquiesced, unknowingly launching what would become her first musical partnership with the singer, guitarist/drummer. Within four weeks, their acoustic duet, The Siblings, were working paying gigs in the area.

That venture lasted about two years before Coleman moved on to establish Cole-Connection, a five-piece acoustic ensemble that billed itself as a folk/funk group, which eventually broadened their songbook to include Gina’s originals and performed throughout the ‘90s. In 1999, however, the lineup was in upheaval. A couple of members were moving out of the area.

As luck would have it, however, Coleman was presented with an opportunity that would change her life forever. “And I might have passed it if Cole-Connection hadn’t been in so much flux,” she admits.

She was drafted to play a gospel singer for a production of A Raisin in the Sun, which was going to be presented at the annual Williamstown Theatre Festival, one of the most important events of its kind in the nation.

Penned by Lorraine Hansberry, it tells the story of a black family’s experience with housing discrimination and racism in Chicago after a windfall insurance payout following the death of the father. Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee were the original stars on Broadway and the big screen when the play debuted, and – in hindsight — the cast for the Williamstown run was just as impressive.

Years before filling her trophy case with Oscars, Tonys and Emmys, a young Viola Davis was cast as the female lead, Ruth, with Ruben Santiago-Hudson starring as Walter. Although his name might not be as familiar, his pedigree as a Tony-winning actor/playwright/producer is just as impressive with credits that include Lackawanna Blues, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and roles on everything from All My Children to Coming to America and Selma. And two other major Hollywood talents — Kimberly Elise, best known for The Manchurian Candidate and Almost Christmas, and Gloria Foster, the oracle in The Matrix — were in the lineup, too.

When he was casting the play, however, Gina remembers, the director, Jack Hofsiss, found it almost impossible to find a local actress to play the gospel singer whose role primarily served as musical bridge between scenes.

To put it simply, Coleman says, literally stood out from the crowd – and not just for the singing prowess she’s recognized for today. “I live in Williamstown,” she laughs, “so there’s not a lot of African-Americans up here…or singers.

“The director was looking for an African-American singer. Everyone just kinda pointed him in my direction! I basically hung out on a fire escape that was rigged across the main stage through the entire show.”

And it was Santiago-Hudson who was the first to spot her true musical potential.

“He said: ‘You’ve gotta stop that folk-funk nonsense and do the blues,’” she remembers, “’your voice is perfectly suited for it.’”

The show went off without a hitch on opening night, July 21, 1999, but Gina wasn’t prepared for the throng of friends and fans who were gathered to celebrate, offer congratulations and get autographs near the performers’ exit when she bounded off of the stage prior to the final curtain call.

“I just wanted to go home, and I’m met by this wall of people,” she says. “I was so frightened that I actually ran back in the theater because I didn’t know what to do. I asked a few people, and they told me: ‘Just go and say hello, shake some hands, what have you.’

image“So I go back out, find a friend to talk to — and this white-haired woman…you can hear her from the back of the crowd saying ‘’Scuse me, ‘scuse me’…it’s like she’s parting the Red Sea…she assaults me almost. She’s like: ‘You were phenomenal! My husband and I, we loved you so-o-o much! Wait right here. I gotta go get him.’

“I go to my friend: ‘Cuckoo, cuckoo!’ She comes back and in tow…pulls through the crowd…her husband, Mandy Patinkin (who’d recently received a Tony for starring in Evita). I immediately know who he is…I had no words.

“He was so-o-o effusive…‘Your voice was just magnificent!’

“I was like…‘What?!? You’re Mandy Patinkin!’ (belly laugh) I didn’t understand this at all.”

Gwyneth Paltrow was also in town to rehearse the next play, Quark Victory, which shared the same space as the Raisin actors who continued working out kinks in their own show. When she and Coleman crossed paths in the lobby one afternoon, she heaped on even more praise about Gina’s performance.

The kicker came toward the end of the play’s run when Santiago-Hudson repeated his earlier suggestion and driving home his message by gifting Coleman a copy of Men Are Like Streetcars: Women Blues Singers 1928-1969, a two-CD, 46-track MCA Records set that includes selections from Memphis Minnie, Billie Holiday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Alberta Hunter to Big Mama Thornton, Katie Webster, Lavelle White, Etta James, Sugar Pie DeSanto and Koko Taylor and others.

“I’d already heard a few of the tunes independently,” Gina admits, “but when they were strung together, it put me on my heels. I was like: ‘Wow! This is a thing. This is a thing…this blues thing!’ (laughs)

“I already had some understanding what blues was. But when it was packaged – and handed – to me, it was transformative to listen to it all together and see the connections between the female artists across the decades…how it evolved and how certain things were just fundamental to the genre.

“I found it fascinating” – so much so, in fact, that she approached guitarist Jason Webster and bassist Bill Patriquin, the remaining members of Cole-Connection, and said: “‘Let’s switch things up. Let’s become a blues band. And they were like…’Okay.’

“And off the top of my head, I said: ‘Let’s call ourselves “Misty Blues.”’

“We were basically doing Men Are Like Street Cars when we started,” remembers Gina whose influences include Bessie Smith, Joplin, Holiday and Patti Cathcart, the female half of the jazz duo, Tuck & Patti. “We were a blues band doing almost exclusively female blues covers.”

Today’s lineup still includes Patriquin along with a pair of music educators — Benny “Fingers” Kohn (keyboards) and Rob Tatten (drums and trumpet), guitarist Seth Fleischmann and saxophonist Aaron Dean, and it boasts a deep roster of other musicians on a “farm team,” too.

And instead of invoking sounds of the past, their playlist features a thoroughly contemporary sound that’s infused with plenty of jazz, funk and soul with a dash of Delta and Big Easy. They’ve released 11 albums since their founding, and Gina’s husband, Michael Mongue, has created the cover illustrations for all of them.

“It clear that each of the guys in my band love jazz as much as they love the blues,” she says, “and we can’t stifle those influences. I think it’s really what creates our sound.”

As talented as her unit is individually, they work together to provide rich, layered backing that never overpowers the vocals but take full advantage of arrangements that allow for plenty of space to shine on solos. Most of the material on recent releases have been loaded with Coleman originals thanks to her innate ability to construct complete tunes from a seed of an idea in a single sitting, teaming lyrics with a simple melody and structure that’s built out by her bandmates.

image“Some of them I labor over,” she admits, “but my ‘labor’ isn’t like anybody else’s. These songs just flood to me. It’s very unusual, and I have a lot of people who are very envious (laughs). “There’s pretty much not a day that goes by that something doesn’t flood to me and I have to document.

“Sometimes I can’t attend to it right away, so I just put it in a voice recorder and go back to it. But I get whole songs…whole!…in my sleep, and I have to wake up and jot them down. Hence, I don’t sleep much (laughs).”

Misty Blues’ first all-original album, 2012’s Between the Stacks, featured a contribution from Grammy-winner Charles Neville, the Neville Brothers saxophonist who passed in 2018. His presence was an unexpected stroke of good fortune, Gina says, unlike the band’s latest effort, One Louder, which includes three major talents in its grooves.

“He had moved to a neighboring town in the Berkshires and we crossed paths with him many times in live performance format at benefits,” she says. “Our music was right up his alley, but I was never bold enough (laughs) to think that he would want to record with us. It never entered my mind at all.

“It was before Aaron joined the band, and I had another saxophonist come in and work up some of my songs for the album. We were scheduled to go into the studio, and, at the last minute, he called all apologetic, telling me he was double-booked.

“I said: ‘That’s really unfortunate for the other band, right?’

“He’s like: ‘No-o-o. It’s unfortunate for you.’

“I was scrambling to re-envision the arrangements. But something inside me said: ‘You know what…just reach out to Charles. He’s a nice guy…nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ I shot him an email…‘he-e-ey, if you’re not doin’ anything…’ Fifteen minutes later, he replied: ‘Yeah. Sure. Sounds like fun.’

“I immediately went into a panic. ‘I don’t have any money,’ I told him. ‘But I can muster up some for gas – and I can feed you!’ (laughs). He said: ‘You’re so silly, Gina. Don’t worry about it!’

“I said: ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, Charles! We’ve played together live a lot. But you’ll never be able to deny what we’ve done together on the permanent record.’

“He just thought I was so ridiculous!”

As successful as that venture proved to be, Coleman admits that it took another four years – with the release of her Dark & Saucy album in 2016 – that she really started believing that she and Misty Blues truly had something special.

The band failed in an attempt to win the regional International Blues Challenge event run by the Capitol Region Blues Network in Albany in 2017, but they made good use of the lessons they learned in failure – especially about engaging with the audience more rather than packing as many songs as they could into a short set – winning the local competition a year later and making it to the worldwide finals in Memphis, where they were runners-up to St. Louis-based Ms. Hy-C and Fresh Start in Memphis in 2019.

Unable to capitalize on their success because of COVID-19, all of the members of Misty Blues were more fortunate than many groups because they all were working decent day jobs. But they’re chomping at the bit to take things to the next level now – something that seems inevitable thanks to the recordings they’ve released during the pandemic.

“We call ‘em the Irish triplets,” Gina jokes.

Both Weed ‘Em & Reap and None More Blue created traction, but their most recent effort, One Louder, is proving to be an attention-grabber both for the high quality of music it contains and thanks to contributions from Joe Louis Walker, BigLlou Johnson and Justin Johnson, the acoustic guitar virtuoso.

It’s their first outing on Britain’s Lunaria Records, a relationship that began after Coleman cruised the internet, came across the work of another of their artists and loved their sound. Misty Blues was already getting airplay in the UK and had already cancelled a planned tour. On a whim, she sent a cold-call email along with some of the group’s recordings, informing the recipient that she “liked their stuff…here’s some of ours. If you like it, too, let’s talk.”

imageLike her experience with Neville, she says, the response was almost immediate and Misty Blues joined Lunaria’s roster as the first of their groups with a home base in the New World.

The disc is even more special, Gina says, because, for the first time in the band’s 13-year history, they actually sought out major blues talents in the hope they’d lend a hand. “It put a completely different spin on what we were doing,” she notes, “and it was very energizing for us, too.

“It was interesting to see how Joe, BigLlou and Justin interpreted our music, and we just ran with it from there.”

Her introduction to Walker came as both a major blessing and an equally major surprise.

“I was on a radio junket for None More Blue, and did an interview with Danny Coleman, who hosts Danny Coleman’s Got the Blues on (public radio station) WWFM-FM out of Trenton, N.J.,” she remembers. “In the course of the interview, he asked: ‘Who are some of the artists you’d love to work with?’ I gave a few names, and one of ‘em happened to be Joe Louis Walker.

“He’s like: ‘Wow! I know Joe Louis Walker…we’re friends. We talked a couple of weeks ago.’

“Very tongue-in-cheek, I told him: ‘Whoa, Danny… the next time you talk to him, tell him Gina Coleman wants to work with him.’ We laughed it off and went on with the interview. Two days later, I’m at my day gig – she’s associate director of admissions at Williams today when not gigging or touring — and I get this call. The I.D. says (the town where Joe resides, which is not far from her in Upstate New York).

“Normally, I’d ignore it, but something told me to answer it, and the voice on the other end said: ‘Is this Gina Coleman?’

“’Who’s calling?’”

“’This is Joe Louis Walker.’”

Right, I thought. This is one of my friends punkin’ me ‘cause I have not-so-great friends (laughs). ’Okay… all right, Joe Louis Walker, to what do I owe the pleaser of this call?’ That’s exactly how I was speaking to him.

“He laughed and says: ‘No-o-o. You were on a radio show with Danny Coleman and….’ He started lining it out. And I go: ‘Oh-h-h, Mr. Walker…’”

Shortly thereafter, he requested that she send him some material and told her that, if he liked it, he’d be happy to do it.

“At the time, I was doing some thinking about re-doing ‘Take a Long Ride,’ which appeared on our Pickled & Aged album,” she says. “It never took off like I thought it should. I wanted to re-do everything…my vocals, the arrangement…and thought: ‘I bet he could re-energize it with a big, chunky solo in the middle…just let him go!’”

For Coleman, the song had deep personal meaning and deserved far more exposure than it had initially received. She’d written it tune while driving home from a gig one night. She was traveling a long distance and missing her family greatly.

The band went to work immediately, recharting and recorded the new version in about a week before sending it to Walker for his consideration. Three days later, he called again, gave it his stamp of approval and told Gina he’d be going into the studio to lay down his track that Friday and invited her to “come by around noon” to say hi.

“My guitarist and I both skipped work,” she says in a hushed voice. “By the time I got home from my gig in Lenox (a neighboring town) that same night, I had a finished file in my in-box,” she says. “And by the time the weekend was over, his track was mixed into ours.”

Now serving as the closing number on One Louder, it’s a funky pleaser with powerful horn runs and an adventurous, funky solo from Joe that verges on psychedelic and takes the tune to an entirely different level.

imageAnother high point of the CD is “How the Blues Feels,” a ballad that’s delivered in duet with BigLlou, teaming features two of the warmest low-range voices in the industry. It’s a soulful pleaser that features horns that deliver a Dixieland feel in counterpoint to harmonica runs from Bob Stannard, an enduring fixture in the New England music scene.

“BigLlou and I met when he emceed Bob’s 70th birthday party in Manchester, Vt., a few years ago, and we kept in touch,” Coleman says. “I saw him again at the 2019 IBCs – he was cheerin’ us on…I could hear his voice shouting in the crowd. After getting Joe Louis Walker on one track, I thought: ‘Why stop?’ I’ve written this great song, and it would work really well as a duet…’

“I pitched it to him, he loved it and did it – and then Justin Johnson came aboard for “Freight Train.”

Co-written with her son, Diego, who came up with the melody, it’s an interesting downhome blues that presents Justin’s stellar cigar-box slide runs in a unique setting. He delivers them while engaging in interplay with the horns.

Justin and Gina developed a relationship after she received a cigar-box guitar as a present eight years ago and subsequently acquired Johnson’s popular instructional series to teach herself how to play it. “I wrote my first cigar-box song, ‘Here My Call’ – on the Call & Response album,” she says, “and I sent him the video and thanked him because it wouldn’t have happened without him.

“We became Facebook friends. And then, later: ‘Wanna be on my album?’”

Other standout tracks in the set include “Seal of Fate,” which is delivered with a reggae/zydeco feel, and “A Long Hard Way,” which pulls from several sources in the American songbook.

But Misty Blues isn’t resting on their laurels. They’re well on the way toward producing their 12th album, Coleman says. It’ll feature a number she’s penned after receiving an extremely racist remark – now removed — in the comments of a video she posted from the new CD. And after the most recent disc, there’s no telling who’s going to pop up on the new one. Gina’s already got a couple of folks with different vocal qualities than her own in mind.

Meanwhile, the band’s working regularly across the New York-Vermont-Massachusetts region with occasional forays into Canada and as far south as Birmingham and Muscle Shoals, Ala., Memphis and Clarksdale, Miss. They recently made a brief run to Virginia, and they’ll be appearing at the FreshGrass Festival headlined by Gary Clark Jr. in North Adams, Mass., this September. A European tour planned for this summer has been rescheduled for 2023 because of potential COVID problems.

Check out Misty Blues’ music and where Gina and the boys will be playing next by visiting their website: www.mistybluesband.com

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