By sprinkling blues tunes into their performances the members of the Alexis P. Suter Band have brought a lot of new converts into the blues fold. Far from a straight-ahead blues band, this six piece band from Brooklyn and New Jersey has broadened the audience for blues by playing an artful blend of traditional gospel, American folk songs, blues, and familiar covers, such as Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”
Once Levon Helm, the legendary drummer for the Band became aware of them in 2005, things began to take off for the Alexis P. Suter Band. He loved Alexis’ voice and how the other members of her ensemble so perfectly complemented her belting and shouting on boisterous blues tunes as well as quieter ballads and message songs. Helm, who died in April, had the Alexis P. Suter Band open for him and his assorted band mates at more than 100 of his legendary “Midnight Ramble” concerts at his home studio in Woodstock, N.Y. There, patrons paying $100 a seat could enjoy Helm and other musicians up close and personal in the intimacy of his relatively spacious home studio.
On Saturday, September 15, the band plays at the Record Collector on Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown, an intimate venue, to be sure.
In the last five years, the band has emerged on the national festival circuit and had played a number of prestigious festivals around the U.S. and Canada, including the Toronto Waterfront Blues Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the New York State Blues Festival, Bethlehem’s MusikFest, and New Hampshire’s White Mountain Boogie and BluesFest.
“The secret is letting people feel like they’re part of what we’re doing,” explains Suter, back home in Fort Greene Brooklyn, where she recently moved from Burlington, south of Bordentown, to look after her 90-year-old mother.
“We let the people feel like they’re on that journey with us, and when they feel that and feel the truth, they open up to you. I want people to see me as the truth, not just as this big black woman singing the blues. I want them to see me as a human being, someone of love and light, so that they know, whatever happens in this life, it’s going to be alright, and I want them to feel that when they see us,” Suter says.
Suter’s father worked for the postal service. Her mother sang gospel and pop music and worked as a public school teacher in Brooklyn. Suter quickly explains she was raised in an integrated neighborhood with “a rainbow of friends,” some of whom hipped her to the film chronicling the last show by the Band, “The Last Waltz.” Suter was a fan of that musical documentary, produced by Martin Scorcese, and Helm’s acting work in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by the time she first met him at a music hall in Brooklyn.
“My father really appreciated music, and he always wanted my mother to sing,” Suter recalls of her late father, who put in 36 years at the post office without ever missing a day of work. Suter’s mother, Carrie Suter, aside from working as a music teacher in Brooklyn public schools, sang with the likes of Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the Hall Johnson Choir in her day.
“I got my musical gift from God, my mom was just a vessel,” Suter says, noting she began singing in her parents’ church as a five-year-old.
“My mother had me doing different programs at church for Christmas and Easter, and my mother was always encouraging me to sing; they had me in vocal lessons. I think I took two lessons, but from the time I was very young, I knew I wanted to become a singer,” she says.
Like any blues or jazz singer — once bookings became too frequent that she found it much more difficult to hold down a full-time or part-time job — Suter soon discovered how tough it is to make it, financially. Suter worked as a plane cleaner at JFK Airport, as a drug counselor at Samaritan Village on 53rd Street in Manhattan, and as a counselor for women at the Columbia Research Foundation.
“Once the music came, it was like, this is something that I have to do, this is what I’ve always wanted to do. And it’s not been the most lucrative thing in the world, but it’s something that I love and for now, this is how I’m paying my bills. And now that I’m back home with mom, they’re less than they were in Burlington, but not that much less. I’m not going to be living off my mom at this age,” says Suter, 49.
Interestingly, Suter’s first big break in the recording business was not with blues and American vernacular music, but rather, with house and dance music. In the early 1990s, she was the first African-American signed to Epic Sony Japan’s dance label. “I had bad management and the whole thing ended very badly,” she says. But the one good thing that did happen was she met Vicki Bell, another singer and dancer. Bell moved to the city from Binghamton, N.Y., in the early 1990s to pursue her career as a vocalist and dancer in Broadway shows. She subsequently met and married drummer Ray Grappone, and together the couple formed HipBone Records, their own record label in Brooklyn.
“Vickie and Ray, they basically brought me back from the dead,” Suter explains, chuckling, “when we all got together, we knew we wanted to go way beyond house music and dance music.”
“I wasn’t really feeling very much respected at all in the dance music world, and I remember saying to Vicki, ‘With your brains and expertise, and my voice, we can go very far.’”
Indeed, Bell and her husband engineered and produced the first two recordings from the band, “Shuga Fix” , and “Just Anutha Fool” . In between, longtime admirer Helm put out a CD of the band live at several of his `Midnight Rambles,’ “Live at the Midnight Ramble” on his own Levon Helm Records.
Helm said of Suter’s performances: “She is one of those wonderful spirits; she’s got her arms around you, and you can feel that.” Suter’s most recent release is also out on Bell and Grappone’s HipBone Records, “Two Sides” .
The band includes Bell on backing vocals, Grappone on drums, Benny Harrison of Middlesex on keyboards and vocals, and the Bennett Brothers, Jimmy and Peter, on guitar and bass and backing vocals, respectively. After many years in New York City, both Bennett brothers recently made the move to Barnegat in Ocean County. The Bennett Brothers also recorded their own album on HipBone Records, a brilliantly engineered, masterfully produced recording called “Three Minutes to Midnight.”
Given that she was raised singing in her church, Suter and her band mates, soon after forming the band in 2005, realized there was little point in ignoring her rich background in gospel and spiritual music. Recognizing that blues and gospel were branches of that same American roots music tree, they began incorporating gospel tunes into their live club and festival shows. As San Francisco soul-blues vocalist E.C. Scott once told this author, “Blues music is about this life, while gospel music is about the next life.”
“We always try to bring a positive message to our audiences and to be uplifting as performers,” Suter says, noting she was at Helm’s funeral in Woodstock in April and sang a few verses with Catherine Russell.
“It was a sad day, but it was also uplifting being there. He brought joy to so many people with his drumming and singing,” she says, “but he also helped many people, not just fellow musicians, and many people helped him, too.” A special tribute concert, “Love for Levon” is planned for Wednesday, October 3, at the IZOD Center at the Meadowlands.
At the Record Collector on September 15, people unfamiliar with Suter and her band can expect carefully constructed sets that include blues, gospel, and classic rock — a smorgasbord of American roots music.
In recent months, says Suter, “we’ve started to put more of ourselves into the music. The Bennett Brothers like all kinds of different music, and Jimmy is just the fiercest guitar player I know, and I thank God he plays with me. We’re starting to bring in more blues, but we’re trying to get more people into roots music period, so that when we hit ’em with blues; they love that, too.”
“I do it because I love it. I love to see young people come forward with their eyes open up like half dollars,” she says, adding she and her band mates enjoy introducing younger audiences to the simple-yet-complex beauty of the blues.
“The young people are waiting to hear something they know from the radio. But once they hear something different that sounds good and they realize you can also dance to it, believe me, they convert quick.”
Alexis P. Suter Band, Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, September 15, 7:30 p.m. $18-22. 609-324-0880.
Suter also appears on Friday, September 14, Blast Furnace Blues Festival at the MusikFest Cafe in Bethlehem, PA; and Saturday, September 22, the Twisted Tail, 509 South 2nd Street, Philadelphia.