Colemania celebrates a musical legacy

Friends gather for tribute to Coleman Lewis

In a concert that’s being called Colemania, a gathering of musicians deeply connected with the life and art of Coleman Terrell Lewis, whose family says he died from a heroin overdose on May 31, will perform in remembrance of their departed friend. Proceeds from the show — a benefit for the Dury Lewis Scholarship Fund — will support the late guitarist’s 10-year-old son. “This is a way for those of us who loved Coleman to remember, celebrate, and send him off in a way that’s true to who he was,” says Claire Lewis Evans, Lewis’ older sister and organizer behind Colemania.

Lewis Evans describes her brother, who was 41 years old when he died, as “a complex, flawed, multifaceted person.” An extraordinarily gifted guitarist, Lewis was a catalyst for Atlanta’s fabled underground music scene during the late 1980s and early ’90s, the genesis of which can be traced to the experimental musical aesthetics of the Cabbagetown and Little Five Points communities.

Over the years, he performed with numerous bands, including Cat Power, but most are relatively unknown outside of a small but bonded subculture: Smoke, Grand Fury, Hustler White, Lip Lock Alarm Clock, Ed Splatt, Red Eye Gravy, Sixty Cycle Hum, and, most recently, Ignitor ... Fool! His playing style combined fluid chording with soulful phrasing, while imparting a bluesy, swinging depth to the songs he played.

“Guys like Robert Johnson, Son House, Lead Belly, Charlie Patton, they all pulled a heavy, full sound out of what is really a light and fragile box of wood,” says Bill Taft, a cornet, guitar, and banjo player who first met Lewis in the early ’80s. “Coleman got that sound, too.”

During the 1990s, working alongside cellist Brian Halloran, percussionists Tim Campion and Will Fratesi, Taft and Lewis supported the late vocalist and cross-dressing Southern firebrand Benjamin (Robert Dickerson) in the band Smoke. In Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s 2000 documentary film Benjamin Smoke, Lewis speculates that, had he not pursued the guitar, he might have ended up in an institution or a cult. “Most likely a cult, I would think,” he says with wry self-awareness, “wearing my brand-new Nike high-tops, man, waitin’ for UFOs.”

Following Benjamin’s death in 1999, the remaining members of Smoke later performed together as Smoke that City. The surviving trio will take the Colemania stage under the name Opening Scum.

Best known among Sunday’s Colemania lineup is Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, a former Cabbagetown neighbor of Lewis. Marshall recalls she “first spotted the lean, tall, wild man with that big head of hair under that train conductor’s hat” when Lewis was working at Tortillas, the defunct but not forgotten Ponce de Leon Avenue burrito joint where struggling musicians earned enough money to keep their instruments out of hock. “He was a regular, the casual man, the coolest; he was more laid-back than you’ll ever be,” Marshall says.

When touring with Cat Power, Marshall remembers, the set list included one song (the name of which she could not recollect) on which Lewis would let loose, singing and playing with uncharacteristic verve and intensity. His wild enthusiasm brought out the best in everyone on stage. “That feeling in his performance was righteous, was triumph,” Marshall says. “He played with real punk abandon soul.”

For Colemania, guitarist and vocalist Theodore Williamson is traveling from Colorado to reunite after 14 years with bassist Jo Jameson and drummer Andrew Barker as Melts. According to Williamson, Lewis was usually underrated by many of his axe-wielding peers because “he was not a showboat shredder and never acted like he should be awarded a trophy for guitar playing.”

The particular music community to which Lewis belonged has over the years included some of the city’s most accomplished innovators, as well as a few irascible, unrepentant, self-destructive personalities. It has witnessed a fair share of “death singing,” as Patti Smith so eloquently put it in her ode to Benjamin. On the eve of Colemania, we are reminded yet again of the adage that says, by fully embracing life we must also embrace its inevitable concluding verse and reflect on the lessons contained within the entire song. “There’s been such an outpouring of love and support for Coleman and his family and friends since his death — it would nice if we could try harder to cultivate that for each other while we’re still here and alive,” Lewis Evans says.

Perhaps Colemania will serve as a contemplative step in that direction.