Alexis P. Suter Band at Gwynedd Mercy University
Women in the Blues
Gwynedd Mercy University
Gwynedd Valley, PA
February 7, 2014
A frozen night in Pennsylvania was made immensely warmer when the Alexis P. Suter Band took the stage at Gwynedd Mercy University in suburban Philadelphia. The bass-voiced blues diva electrified the crowd with her unique and powerful sound, as well as the band's interpretations of blues standards, originals, and tunes that one might not think of as blues until sung by this international blues songstress. Suter was backed by four superior musicians, including backup singer Vicki Bell, drummer Ray Grappone, and brothers Jim and Peter Bennett on guitar and bass.
The performance was part of the university's Black History Month celebration and hosted by Pennsylvania Blues Festival director Michael Cloeren. Cloeren has brought his "Women in the Blues" programming to several universities recently in an effort to introduce the younger generation to American roots music. Cloeren has a near photographic memory for the history of the blues and its performers, and it is obvious he is well respected by musicians for his efforts to expand the genre's base. From the positive student feedback following the program, the blues now has many new fans.
The evening began with Cloeren interviewing Suter who, as one might suspect, grew up in the church with musical parentage. Her mother, who will be celebrating her 92nd birthday at the time of this writing, was a backup singer for Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Suter rattled off numerous early influences including Jackson, Tharpe,Bessie Smith, Etta James, Tina Turner and, more recent influences like Ruthie Foster and Shemekia Copeland. Before beginning her set, she expressed how happy she was to be at Gwynedd Mercy University, her first university performance, and humbly hoped the music would touch them the way it has touched her.
Suter began her set with a high energy-version of the call-and-response gospel classic, "John the Revalator," before moving into a bluesy Big Mama Thornton tune called "You Don't Move Me No More." It became evident quite early in the performance just how talented her fellow band members were in the blues format. Grappone kept a high-energy, crisp, yet unobtrusive beat throughout the performance while the Brothers Bennett drew regular applause for their dirty blues licks. Backup singer Bell, who spent many years in Broadway musical theater, was highly entertaining to watch as she wore her enjoyment of the evening plainly on her face and in her body-shaking dancing at the microphone.
Suter sang several of her original tunes that will no doubt be added to the American blues songbook. Her tune, "Hole That I'm In" is a song of needing and receiving help that she sang passionately as if she had been in that position. She proved her blues ballad chops with an emotional rendition of the slow and soulful "I'm A Fool."
The highlight of the evening was one of the most passionate interpretations of The Beatles "Let It Be" that most in attendance had ever witnessed. In her big bellowing bass voice, Suter went to "that other place" where blues singers go when they get lost in the music. Mesmerizing, painful, and gripping do not begin to describe what happened in that auditorium and to those who were her witness to this heart-felt Beatles classic. Mid-way through the tune, many in the audience began to cry at what they were hearing and seeing. And at the conclusion of the tune, hundreds rose to their feet to cheer this familiar tune sung in a deeply felt blues form. It took Suter herself a few moments to return from where the song had taken her, as she rubbed her face to regain her composure before the next number. It was no doubt the talk of the evening and changed the atmosphere in the building as young and old alike realized that Suter is the real blues deal.
Suter and the band ended the evening with a high-energy, hip-shaking original, "Big Mama Gonna Play With You," that had the audience, including the university president, up and dancing as Suter and Bell sang harmonies and Jim Bennett rang out a rousing solo. In a fitting ending, as the band entered its final high-octane blues riff, the sound system blew a fuse two notes before the final hit. But this band of professionals just smiled at each other while Grappone finished the tune on drums and the crowd, recognizing the irony of a sound system that cannot stand the heat put out by this band, stood and cheered the finale. The Alexis P. Suter Band provided this university community more than a performancethey gave them an experience.