Blues People frontman Kelton Cooper starts the band’s recent single, the moody “Troubled Times” (listen below) with some big questions:
Are we at the end of days
Because man has lost his way?
Is all hope gone?
Have we played our last song?
“The Skin I’m In” (listen below), another single that the band has released this year, is funkier and more upbeat but equally serious, with Cooper singing about feeling misunderstood and discriminated against.
Both songs are sung and played flawlessly and, along with the band’s incendiary concert performances, mark the arrival of Blues People as one of the most notable new bands on the New Jersey/New York blues in recent years. After winning a contest at the Stanhope House in June (full disclosure: I was one of the judges), the band will be sent by the North Jersey Blues Society to compete in the next edition of the annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis, in January. Upcoming gigs include a show of their own at Stanhope House, Aug. 11, as well as appearances in Maplewood’s Summer Streets series, Aug. 12; South Valley BBQ in West Orange, Aug. 19; and Terra Blues in New York, Aug. 29.
Blues People came together during the pandemic. Singer-guitarist Cooper has previously played with Kool & the Gang, Lonnie Youngblood and the Black Widow Blues Band; bassist Mike Griot, with Sue Foley, Michael Hill’s Blues Mob and Ana Popovic; keyboardist Ron Thompson, with Hugh Masekela, Bo Diddley Jr. and Blue Magic; and drummer Gene Lake, with Henry Threadgill, David Sanborn and the band of the Broadway’s “MJ: The Musical” (featuring Michael Jackson songs). All have many other credits as well.
“Basically, we all knew each other from the New York pro hired-gun scene,” says Griot, who lives in Orange. “Everybody has played with everybody, somewhere, for gigs over the years, either New York-area gigs or touring gigs. There’s a lot of cross-pollination in terms of knowing everybody and hiring your friends to play certain gigs. All of us have been freelancing forever.”
About five years ago, says Griot, Cooper and Lake happened to be doing a lot of work together. And Lake, he says, “sort of looked at Kelton one day and said, ‘Hey, man, you should really have your own thing, ’cause you play great and you sing great.’ Kelton was the proverbial sideman’s sideman for all of his career, and never fronted a band. So Gene was like, ‘You should really consider stepping out front.’ ”
At that time, Griot owned Hat City Kitchen in Orange, and Cooper was moonlighting as a soundman there. “He brought up the idea of doing an independent project,” says Griot. “And I told him, ‘Yeah, I’m into it. But the minute we become a cover band, I’m quitting, because that’s not what I want to do.’ ”
The band’s name — evoking the idea of adult men whose world view have been shaped by their decades as blues musicians — was inspired by the title of Amiri Baraka’s 1963 book, “Blues People: Negro Music in White America,” which Griot had read.
“I saw that this group of four African American men really had some stories to tell,” he says, “and we were just beginning to tell our stories through lyrics and stuff. I was looking for something special. I looked over at my bookcase and I saw the book. I was like, ‘Oh! Blues People. That seems kind of poignant and apropos.’ And when I brought it to Kelton, he was like, ‘Of course.’ It was almost self-explanatory. It was perfect.”‘
Griot, who has a lot of experience in the business side of the music industry, does most of the behind-the-scenes organizing, while the musical leadership is “kind of a shared thing, mostly between Kelton and myself,” he says. The two also have done most of the group’s songwriting, though Lake contributes to that as well.
The band has not done extensive touring yet. They focused on writing and recording during the first year of the pandemic and started to play locally once venues started reopening.
They plan to release an album in the fall with the hope that that, and the Blues Challenge, will take them to the next level. Griot figures that whether or not they win in Memphis, they will have a chance to make an impression on club bookers and festival promoters and record label executives.
“That’s worth the trip right there,” Griot says. “We want to work. We want to leave the hired gun mercenary world and spend our final act as an original band, and we have a real shot at it. So to me, that just seemed like the logical thing to do.”
In addition to work as a musician, Griot founded the South Orange/South Mountain International Blues Festival and produced it from 2010 to 2019; produces The Kean University Jazz & Roots Festival (this year’s event takes place Sept. 23 and will be headlined by Third World); and has curated blues and blues-rock shows at the South Orange Performing Arts Center for years. He recently was named to SOPAC’s “Creative Community Brain Trust,” whose mission is “to guide SOPAC toward inclusively excellent, radically creative, and community-powered programming.”
A similar sense of mission is very much evident in Blues People’s concerts, in which band members don’t just play their songs, but speak to the crowd, between songs, in a way that makes the songs into larger statements.
“It’s just really important that all people — for different reasons — but all people remember that the blues is an African American art form, and we’re very proud to be practitioners of our ancestral music,” says Griot. “That’s a big part of why we’re doing this: because we believe that, basically, black musicians and black artists are underrepresented in their own music, at this point.
“That was the reason I started my blues festival: because I traveled the world and have done all the biggest festivals on the planet. And I basically was like, ‘There are some people that look like me (at the festivals), but where is the support?’ And when I created the blues festival, later, I found out that I was probably one of maybe two or three African American blues festival producers in the country. And I was like, ‘Wow!’
“There’s just underrepresentation everywhere, for a host of reasons, and it’s really important that that be mentioned as something that’s a real thing. We’re trying to address that, among other things, besides just making great music and playing our best.”
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