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Nashville Scene Soul Deep

Two vocalists show that blues and soul still have plenty to say

By Ron Wynn

MAY 15, 2000:  Thanks to artists such as Corey Harris, Alvin "Youngblood" Hart, and recent Grammy darling Susan Tedeschi, blues and soul music are receiving renewed attention these days. Two more artists with potential crossover appeal are vocalist/guitarist Deborah Coleman and songstress extraordinaire Toni Lynn Washington. Each has a fine new release, and both are making strides that might land them some coverage beyond the usual network of specialty radio and genre magazines.

Coleman initially made a splash more as a gimmick than as an accomplished musician. Fifteen years ago, she was part of the band Moxxie, who got more ink for being an all-female outfit than for their music, which was undistinguished. When the group dissolved in 1988, Coleman decided it was time to master her craft and spent hours learning riffs and developing an individual guitar approach. When she resurfaced in 1993, she was still a much better singer than player. After winning the South Carolina Blues Festival's National Talent Search, she used her award of free studio time to cut a demo. That lead to a deal with the North Carolina label New Moon and the raw but intriguing CD Takin' a Stand in 1995. A year later, she signed with Blind Pig and since has shown substantial growth as a composer and performer. Unfortunately, some critics spend more time focusing on her dreadlocked appearance.

Though based in Boston, Toni Lynn Washington is a classic gospel-tinged Southern stylist. She doesn't merely belt tunes, but rather stretches, elaborates, cajoles, and enhances lyrics. While growing up in Southern Pines, N.C., she was a favorite on both the spiritual and secular circuits. She toiled as a backup singer, assisting legends like Jackie Wilson and Sam & Dave on the road, and sang on USO tours to Asia in the '60s. Washington later scored a top 50 single, "Dear Diary," for Atlantic Records; then, as her career seemed ready to explode, she dropped out of sight in the early '70s. It would be almost two decades before she'd return to music. When she finally resurfaced, she hit the road with a 10-piece band and in 1995 released her Tone-Cool debut, Blue at Midnight.

Coleman's third Blind Pig outing, Soft Place to Fall is getting major attention from the rock press, while Washington's new Tone-Cool release Good Things has excited only soul and blues partisans. Still, the dates are good indications of where contemporary blues and soul music are heading. They also represent benchmarks for each of these artists, showing just how far Coleman and Washington have progressed as bandleaders and performers.

Coleman is an even more impressive pure singer now than on her last Blind Pig date, Where Blue Begins, and her playing on "Look What You Do to Me," "Another Hoping Fool," and "What Goes Around" demonstrates crunching power. Sometimes she's backed by two other guitarists, creating a tapestry of interweaving licks and riffs that could be distracting if her voice weren't so dynamic. She adapts vintage Bo Diddley into "I'm a Woman," spewing the lines out with a confrontational edge that keeps the song from spinning into self-parody. She's equally successful adapting Little Johnny Taylor's "If You Love Me Like You Say," though the backing tempo isn't as catchy here as on the CD's other numbers.

While she'll never rank among the most flamboyant guitarists, Coleman does much more than simply punctuate her vocals. She avoids clichd power chords, instead delivering pungent phrases, nice fills, and tart lines. But she's more interested in maintaining a song's mood and drive than in putting her licks into the spotlight. Nothing on Soft Place to Fall remotely matches the power and energy Coleman routinely displays in live performance. Still, it's her best studio date, and it places her in the top tier of blues acts deserving a higher profile.


Restraint seldom works in soul songs, which require a fiery attack rather than a jazzy, light tone. But Toni Lynn Washington is convincing whether she's slowly building a moment or exploding on top of a chorus. The more somber tunes on Good Things sizzle as much as the bombastic numbers, because she knows exactly when to blaze and when to be demure. She even takes a jazz turn on "Alright, Okay, You Win," a number immortalized by the late master Joe Williams. Washington doesn't have Williams' jubilant swing, so wisely she makes the number more subdued than resolute. She's just as cagey on Percy Mayfield's "We Don't See Eye to Eye."

However, when it's time to stand up and testify, Washington can certainly handle that. She's assertive and nearly confrontational on her rendition of the Willie Mitchell/Earl Randle number "I Don't Know Why." Her concluding performance on "You're Gonna Make Me Cry" is among the precious few that demand comparison to Bobby "Blue" Bland's anthemic original, though where Bland was shattered in his tone, Washington sounds more weary.

Producer Bobby Keyes assembled a band of seasoned players to back Washington. They include saxophonist Paul Ahlstrand, funky organist and pianist Bruce Bears, and guitarist Tim Gearan. The musicians lay back until necessary, then inject the right amount of impassioned support in only the most appropriate places.

Because Washington doesn't rely on one emotion, she doesn't get overbearing through the disc's 12 songs. Keyes smartly keeps most numbers under five minutes, and a couple, like "Meet Me in the Middle" and "Looking at the Future," clock in under three. Washington sings with ease, obviously enjoying herself throughout. Her exuberance and spirit virtually demand that listeners share her joy. Only someone with a cement heart could fail to enjoy hearing Washington make Chuck Willis' "Oh, What a Dream" her own masterpiece.

Neither Deborah Coleman nor Toni Lynn Washington should be deemed an innovator; they're not tinkering with formulas or breaking new ground. However, they prove that blues and soul musicians still have plenty to say--and that their work deserves a wider hearing.


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