|US 1 Newspaper, Princeton, NJ
November 6, 2002
Deb Callahan’s Blues Sound
Philadelphia’s roots-rock and blues chanteuse Deb Callahan says she likes the raw, emotional intensity of the blues. Callahan a singer and songwriter who has her master’s degree in social work fro the University of Pennsylvania, was raised in suburban Boston and graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. As a songwriter she has explored new lyrical territory in the blues and that’s part of the reason her debut album, “If The Blues Had Wings” has been so well received by critics and on radio.
“I’m a bit of an intellectualized person,” says Callahan who appears Friday, November 8, at Triumph Brewing on Nassau Street. She admires songs of Joni Mitchell and John Prine a great deal, she relates “I could have ended up a sensitive Joni Mitchell type singer-songwriter but what appealed to me about the blues was that I wanted to get away from my head and get to my emotional side, as opposed to my rational and intellectual side”
Callahan who works part time at a women’s crisis center in Philadelphia, aggress with the notion that singing blues is therapy for her. “It provides a release and a sense of freedom. I love the feeling of playing and singing with a band. I take in people’s emotions t my job and probably channel some of them out.”
Asked about her first inkling s of wanting to become a singer, Callahan, 37 says she was raised in Beverly, Massachusetts, outside of Boson and always loved singing as a child. Her mother, a psychotherapist is a piano player. A young Callahan took piano lessons but gave it u after a few months. Her father worked I paper sales and ran his own travel agency for a while.
“As a kid, I would listen to the radio and try to imitate the singers,” she says. “My mom listened to a lot of gospel and soulful music and my dad listened to a mixture of stuff,” she recalls. After her parents adopted two African American orphans she explains, “they sent me to the Elma Lewis School for Black Cultural Arts in Roxbury, and that exposed me to some different ideas about music.”
But it wasn’t till she got to college that her appreciation for blues took a real hold on her. At Bowdoin, she majored in political science and art, and began singing in various blues bands as well as seeing the music performed live in nearby Portland, Maine, which has a very healthy blues society.
On the album “If The Blues Had Wings” Callahan’s fresh approach as a songwriter comes through on songs like the double entendre of “The Coffee Grind” as well as “Broken Down Man”, her own version of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery”.
Her backing band on the CD includes Hopewell raised guitarist and songwriter “Sir Bill” Billy Baltera, but Baltera is an in-demand studio and touring musician. So her band for the last several years has included former June Rich guitarist, Allen James a well-known guitarist on the Philadelphia club scene, bassist Robberrtto Rickards and drummer Doug Masters.
At MarketFair’s Big Fish Bistro on a recent Friday night, The Deb Callahan Band played a first set that was mostly original compositions and a second set that included lots of crowd pleasing covers like Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Shakey Ground” a tune popularized by New Jersey’s own Phoebe Snow and Aretha Franklin’s Chain of Fools that segued into “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”. She and her band injected new life into other old familiar classic R & B chestnuts like “At Last” and Al Green’s “Take Me To The River”
Callahan hasn’t thought much about who has inspired her song-writing, but the way she typically works is to sing something into her tape deck and then take it to the band in rehearsal. “I usually get some kind of chorus like lyric in my head and hen I’ll start expanding it to some kind of theme, and sometimes the melody will come with it,” she explains.
“I’m not an amazing guitar player by any means so what I’ll do is sing it into my tape recorder then sing it to the band. Sometimes I’ll have an idea as to what the rhythm should be too”
“As a singer, I was inspired by a lot of the soul singers,” she says. “Otis Redding, Al Green, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner were influences for me, but at the same time I really liked John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. And I always loved Buddy Guy’s voice. I love the way he shivers when he sings.”
After graduating with her MSW from Penn in 1992, Callahan worked full-time at a rape crisis center for seven years before scaling back her work schedule to concentrate more of her efforts on securing more bookings for the band.
Already the band has played at festivals and clubs around the Northeast, everywhere from Madam’s Organ in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington DC, to Diamond State Blues Society events in New Castle, DE, Bucks County Blues Society in Bucks County and well-known New Jersey nightclubs like Red, Hot and Blue in Cherry Hill and Cabana’s in Cape May.
Callahan has received airplay for “If The Blues Had Wings” on WXPN in Philadelphia and public and college radio stations around Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington DC.
“I started writing my own songs for the album with Walter Runge, who was my keyboard player and we worked on them over a period of a couple of years.” She explains. The album was recorded in two different studios in Philadelphia within a year.
Callahan says she’s always enjoyed writing poetry and short stories, so writing songs presented a similar yet different kind of challenge. Not surprisingly, she has several dozen unrecorded songs and plenty of new material for a new album of material, but often times the recording and financing of a CD is done in stages.
“Given my background as a social worker, I’m interested in people and what makes them do what they do, so I tend to write songs about what I see.”, she says. A small label in Boston is interested in releasing the Deb Callahan Band’s second CD, and that may or may not come to fruition she cautions. In the meantime, she continues working her part time job and finding new inspiration for new songs at her day job and on the road.
I like the rawness and the intensity and power of the blues’, she says and I think it’s a very sexual music and you can express a lot of emotions. “It’s a very present medium. And sometimes lyrically I think of something that a brassy blues guy might say, like Muddy Waters”
For the near future, Callahan says, “I want to keep writing new songs and play places where we can primarily do our original material, places where people are appreciative of that. I’d like to have an audience that comes to hear the music.” – Richard Skelly