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Monday, Jan. 14, 2013

Back to the Blues

Stone Cohen returns with classic repertoire

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 Every generation numbers a minority of kids looking for music in less obvious places. In 1970, blues was often that place. In that year, a quartet of Whitefish Bay High School students formed the Stone Cohen Blues Band. Inspired to seek out the roots of Jimi Hendrix and Cream, they found them a hundred miles south in Chicago at Chess Records, home to Muddy Waters and Little Walter.

Some of those artists made their way to the Avant Garde Coffeehouse on Milwaukee’s East Side, where guitarist Bill Stone’s mom drove the kids to see Magic Sam and Johnny Shines. “Another seminal moment for me was when Muddy Waters played the Nicolet High School cafeteria,” remembers harmonica player Steve Cohen. “We found Muddy and his band playing poker and drinking after the first set. Security didn’t exist in those days. I asked him if I could sit in and he asked, ‘Boy, can you blow?’ Had I known more, I would have answered, ‘No, not really, Mr. Waters.’” But with the courage of youth, Cohen played harmonica alongside the Chicago bluesman’s band for the entire second set.

Stone and Cohen formed the band with drummer Marc Wilson and bassist Dave Kasik. They started at all-ages coffee houses and eventually made it to bars around southeast Wisconsin before calling it quits in 1974. They regrouped for the first time last summer to play their high school reunion and decided to keep going. And yet, their story isn’t as simple as awakening from a 40-year hiatus. Most members were affiliated with Cohen’s next group, Leroy Airmaster, a dominant name in local blues during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Kasik and Wilson’s brother Tom were in the band and Stone was in and out at different times. When Marc Wilson returned from Texas after decades of drumming behind Marcia Ball and other national blues acts, a Stone Cohen reunion became plausible. “We would never have done it without all original members,” Cohen explains. “And we felt so comfortable playing together.”

The original Stone Cohen played only one original song, which they have resuscitated; otherwise no effort has been made to recreate the song lists from 40 years ago. The band members draw from a shared repertoire of hundreds of blues classics, plus a few new originals.

“It’s rare for people in high school to be still alive, still friends and still playing music 40 years later,” Cohen concludes. “We like each other and our playing.”

Stone Cohen Blues Band performs at the Mitchell Park Conservatory (524 S. Layton Blvd.), Thursday, Jan. 17 from 6:30-9:00 p.m.