Alexis P. Suter presented her “gosblues” at the Allentown Days Inn Saturday night as the headliner for the 11th Annual Lehigh Valley Blues Jam Spring Festival. As you might guess, it was a mixture of gospel and blues songs.
While she still tours with her blues-based Alexis P. Suter Band, her group Ministers of Sound, formed in 2014, adds gospel songs to her sets. Both bands include her long-time cohorts Ray Grappone on drums and Vicki Bell on background vocals.
This was the first appearance of the Ministers in the Lehigh Valley, and it was the first time they played at a blues festival. They kept many crowd-pleasing numbers in the hour-and-a-half set, and put their gospel numbers at the beginning to test the waters.
After the band jammed for a bit on a blues riff, Suter came onstage wearing her trademark top hat, which she removed before singing “That’s How Strong My Love Is”. Her powerful bass/baritone voice had a bit of a growl. She declared her independent spirit with songs that had lyrics like “Your days are over,” and “I’ve got to be free,” which brought increasing numbers of people to the dance floor.
Suter did a pure gospel number, the moving “Piece of Clay,” and then left the stage for guitarist Chris Bergson to take the vocals on his own “Goin’ Home,” a tribute to Levon Helm. He later did the Freddie King instrumental “The Stumble.” A surprising cover that was given a funk/blues twist was the Clash’s “Train in Vain (Stand By Me).” Keyboardist Mark Berman did a short instrumental from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and took vocals on “Mercy Mercy Mercy.”
“Built for Comfort” had Suter strongly recommending size as a qualification for love. She also did Al Green‘s “Take Me To the River,” which was a popular closer during the four years the Suter band played at Levon Helm’s studio Midnight Rambles concerts in Woodstock, N.Y.
The Donny Hathaway version of “A Song for You” and the Beatles’ “Let It Be” were given a gospel vibe with Suter’s powerful voice and emotion. The band ended with the decidedly secular Slim Harpo number “Shake Your Hips.”
It would have been nice to see Suter be less cautious and perform more gospel. It certainly would have worked with the sympathetic crowd of blues regulars at the festival. But, as always, she put on a solid show. She proved with her singing how close gospel and blues are to each other in feeling and effect, and hopefully she can write some songs that combine the best of both those worlds.