Just as Mississippi Delta blues came alive when it headed to Chicago and plugged in, such is the story of NEPA’s own Blue Coal – a band that takes the ethos of the storied genre and distills it in a vat of rock ‘n roll chic.
“We started as an acoustic/saxophone act,” said Blue Coal guitarist/vocalist Mike Klug upon his early collaborations with saxophone player Jeff Chiappini, leaning more toward a straight-up, traditional blues angle a la Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson. Klug, himself a 10-year musical soldier of the local scene, points out that Blue Coal drummer, Justin Martin, and he were in and out of bands together during much of that time period.
“We knew it was a really good sound we had, but we thought it would come alive if we electrified it,” said Klug, chief Blue Coal songwriter, who lists names like R&B legend Otis Redding as key influences on his craft. “That’s when we picked up the electric guitars, plugged in the amps, and found a drummer and bass player getting together to practice. We found this was definitely more of what we wanted.”
As it turns out, the band, complemented by bassist Adam Lamarca in its current incarnation for a solid six months now had to look no further than their own backyard for a name; one that would not only tip a hat to their hometown of Wilkes-Barre, but symbolize the musical tenacity they were breeding. (Interesting note: Lamarca and Chiappini are actually the former and current bassists, respectively, in local sludge-metal act Earthmouth.)
“There used to be this breaker, called the Huber breaker,” Klug said of the coal processing plants that once dotted the region. “The Huber, in Ashley, was once run by a company called Blue Coal. We wanted to have a name that distinguishes where we come from, and also speaks to the grittiness of our music – there’s nothing dirtier than working in a coal mine; covered in soot. I kind of felt that my raspy voice exemplified that.”
The musical taste that make up Blue Coal is an interesting story. Klug was playing mainly punk rock, frequenting now-defunct clubs like Wilkes-Barre’s Café Metropolis pawning his wares, and says his bandmates offer a stylistic contrast that melds into one creative vision.
“All four of us listen to completely different music which is awesome,” Klug said. While he tells of the band having a mutual understanding and appreciation for classic rock and blues, he acknowledges bassist Lamarca’a heavy metal slant and easygoing work ethic, Chiappini’s mad-scientist musical expertise (“he plays about 13 different instruments,” Klug laughs), and Martin’s fondness for ‘90’s alternative sounds, all came into play when determining the musical soul of Blue Coal.
“Our sound really just evolved into a ’50s, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis-type of sound,” Klug said. “It was really a natural progression. I wanted to fuse the best parts of punk rock, blues, rock ‘n roll, and even Motown, together. It feels like we can really go any way we want; the music flows freely – and that’s the key, we just play what feels good naturally.”
There are certain original songs the guys in Blue Coal have really been enjoying live, and they’ve noticed a connection with the audience on one in particular.
“’Coal City Fever’” is definitely one of those songs,” Klug said. “This song was written about the feeling I get from living in the Anthracite region, and having that young feeling of working all week, and now it’s the weekend – I want to go out and dance my ass off. Rock ‘n roll, you know what I mean? That’s the feeling with that song, and it’s definitely our favorite song to play – it’s upbeat; really rocking.”
Klug knows success on the stage is important to the future of his band, and he hopes to advance Blue Coal’s live situation beyond the borders of NEPA.
“Playing out is important, but playing in the clubs of Northeast Pennsylvania can only take you so far,” he said. “Being a music lover, and loving what I do with a passion, I want Blue Coal to go further than that. I’d like to book more in New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia, and we’re trying to get a record done for early October. We want to go all analog to try and preserve that old Chess Records sound; I’d really like to see this take off.”
Klug is happy to let Blue Coal’s music speak for itself. He’s not out to make a political or social statement with his songs, he’s simply content to channel the music into something positive.
“We’re not trying to revolutionize anything or change anything,” he said. “Blue Coal is more of a ‘revival’ type of band, anyway. The music is definitely my escape and what I go to when I’m down – it’s very therapeutic. It definitely lifts my spirit.”
Mark is a Northeast Pennsylvania-based music journalist who’s enjoyed interviewing legends like members of Iron Maiden, The E-Street Band, and Hall & Oates, right down to the garage band next door - intrigued by a great musical story on any level.