Gina Coleman is feeling optimistic
The Misty Blues frontwoman looks to the future as the band celebrates its 20th year
WILLIAMSTOWN — For a blues singer, Gina Coleman had an awfully bright outlook this past Monday morning. The day before, the Misty Blues frontwoman had seen a rough cut of the Berkshire band's first music video. After 20 years, the group finally performed for the camera, playing "Hear My Call" off of its latest album, "Call & Response," at Greylock Works as Dave Simonds of Williamstown directed.
"This year, I'm looking at doing things that we've never done before," Coleman said shortly before her plate of eggs Benedict arrived at the Gala Restaurant & Bar in Williamstown.
But the video, which the band will screen at Images Cinema on March 31 as part of a concert presentation, wasn't the only reason the singer was feeling optimistic. She and the rest of Misty Blues recently achieved a new level of recognition. As the Capital Region Blues Network's representative at The Blues Foundation's 2019 International Blues Challenge in late January, the group made the finals of the annual Memphis event that convenes more than 250 acts from around the world.
"Never could have I imagined making it to the final eight," Coleman said.
Misty Blues participated in the challenge last year for the first time. Though the band, which features co-founders Coleman, guitarist Jason Webster and bassist Bill Patriquin as well as drummer Rob Tatten, saxophonist Aaron Dean and keyboardist Ben Kohn, had dominated the Berkshire blues scene since 1999, Coleman wasn't sure how its performances would compare to acts from Chicago, Houston, Birmingham and New Orleans. The group didn't advance to the later rounds but left Memphis encouraged.
"The biggest eye-opener for me and the guys in the band last year was that we actually could hold our own in the greater blues world," Coleman said.
Band members studied the judges' notes on their 25-30-minute set.
"Last year, we really tried to jam in as many different styles of blues songs that we've written, so we could give the judges a really good survey of what we were capable of doing," Coleman recalled, "but it was lacking any audience interaction."
This year, they added more banter, aiming to make the semifinals. Their dreams didn't go beyond that; they didn't book their rental house through the finals.
"We had no notion," Coleman said.
Ed Moran filled in for Dean, principal of Crosby Elementary School in Pittsfield, who was unable to take the time off. The band opened its sets with "Hear My Call," a tune Coleman strummed on a cigar box guitar. During the quarterfinals and semis, she used a brand-new one that a Topeka, Kan., fan made for her.
"Now I'm feeling like, this thing's got some great mojo," Coleman said.
But when the group began unloading a van before the finals, the guitar fell, snapping its neck. Luckily, Coleman still had her own.
"I'm still in a fog over the cigar box," she said of her backstage mindset at the Orpheum Theatre.
Misty Blues may not have taken home top honors, but Coleman's family had more than enough reason to celebrate. For the second straight year, Coleman's 15-year-old son, Diego, also performed at the challenge. The Berkshire-based Born IV Blues band was competing in the youth group division.
"This year was really fun to see them perform because last year they were like a deer in headlights," Coleman said. "You could see how nervous they were. But this year, they were light and really enjoying the experience."
Coleman has another son, 10-year-old Garcia, who is "the thespian of the family," she said. Coleman and her husband, Michael Mongue, gave their children names familiar to arts buffs. Garcia Parker pays homage to Jerry Garcia and Charlie Parker. Diego Jackson is named after Diego Rivera and Jackson Pollock.
"He got the nod from my artist husband, and Garcia gets the musician nod from me," Coleman said.
The family lives up the hill from the Gala Restaurant and a short distance from Coleman's alma mater, Williams College. Coleman arrived there in the mid-1980s after growing up in South Bronx, N.Y. Raised by her grandparents, Ruth and Daniel, Coleman started playing piano when she was 5. She attended high school in Wellesley, Mass., on A Better Chance scholarship for gifted students of color. Wellesley is a predominantly white.
"I went through [a] huge cultural transition in high school," she said.
At Williams, she played rugby. She still coaches the club sport at the school.
"Twenty-three years," she said.
Following graduation, Coleman worked at Hillcrest Educational Centers as a teacher's aide. That fall, she went to an open mic on Wahconah Street in Pittsfield.
"I got dared. I don't take dares lightly," she said.
She won $75 and met Dave Lincoln, starting the duet The Siblings shortly thereafter. Folk/rock outfit Cole-Connection followed, preceding Misty Blues' formation in 1999. That year, Coleman had sung gospel songs in "A Raisin in the Sun" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
"They had this whole fire escape set up on the top part of the Main Stage coming down the side. Whenever an act changed, I would come up this fire escape and traverse the scaffolding across the top of the stage and sing these gospel tunes as they were changing the set around," Coleman recalled.
Actor Rubin Santiago-Hudson encouraged her to pursue the blues, and after the show's opening, actor Mandy Patinkin praised her work as well.
The experience helped lead to Misty Blues, a band that has since packed houses from Egremont to Williamstown. In January, the group played its "Queens of the Blues" show at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, honoring Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor and Ruth Brown.
"They're my favorites," said Coleman, who is hoping to bring the concert to a Berkshire venue soon.
As her music career blossomed, Coleman's education work did, too. After receiving her master's in educational administration from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Coleman took a job in admissions at Williams and, later, as its associate dean of students. She subsequently became principal at Pittsfield's Herberg Middle School. Now, when when Misty Blues isn't filling Firefly Gastropub on Friday nights in Lenox or other venues throughout the county, she serves as an educational administrator at the Center School in Holyoke. How does she balance being a mother, musician and educator?
"It's pretty simple: I have a rock star husband," she said.
But she's also efficient. On her 90-minute commutes to and from work, she writes music, recording on her iPhone.
"It's something really unusual for a songwriter: Most of my songs come whole. I hear the music and the lyrics; they're melded," she said.
She has already written Misty Blues' 20th anniversary album. The record will likely be released this summer. In the meantime, Coleman enjoys reflecting on what the group has built in the Berkshires and what it will create next.
"Twenty years," she said, "that's monumental."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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