If thunder could sing, it would sound like Alexis P. Suter. The big-voiced blues belter from Brooklyn is a singer whose power and presence bring to mind Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
Suter — who is coming with her band to Payomet’s drive-in stage for two shows on Saturday, June 5 — isn’t simply a shouter. She’s a nuanced vocalist with subtlety and substance who connects emotionally with the lyrics. In that way, she follows in the footsteps of her mother, Claire Suter, a gospel singer who performed with many of the greats, including Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Mavis Staples.
“She always encouraged my siblings and me,” Suter says. “We were all sort of led on that path.”
Suter’s earliest performances were singing at church functions and as a member of Brooklyn’s Emmanuel Baptist Church choir. There are those who, upon hearing the force and emotion in her voice, still categorize her as a gospel singer.
“I started out singing gospel because that’s my background,” says Suter, “but I sing all music.
“I’m open to different music because I want to reach everybody,” she continues. “And I can’t reach everybody if I’m just doing gospel. I’m more of a spiritualist now, with a lot of Christian beliefs.”
Suter’s professional start was in a musical genre far removed from gospel. In 1990, the pulsating rhythm of house music was the hottest thing on the dance club scene, and Suter, inspired by its four-on-the-floor beat, recorded her first song, a dance track, “Slam Me Baby,” which caught the ears of execs at Epic Records and garnered her a recording contract.
The music brought her in contact with two kindred spirits: Vicki Bell and her husband, drummer Ray Grappone. The three began recording house music together, but, in time, Suter found the genre too confining.
“One day I sat down with Vicki and I said, ‘Vicki, we are so much more.’ Because her and Ray have a Broadway background, I knew that they were musically open to doing other things,” Suter says.
“I said, ‘We can get a band together and we can do some really magnificent things.’ Not long after that, we got a band together and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
The group got a big break when singer Amy Helm, daughter of Levon Helm, the legendary drummer for The Band, heard them perform and introduced them to her father. He, too, was taken by Suter and her group, inviting them to appear at one of the Midnight Ramble music sessions he held at his home in Woodstock, N.Y. That led to a longtime relationship with Helm that had the group touring with him as his opening act.
“I’m grateful to him for giving us that platform,” Suter says. “And he gave us that platform because, in his words, ‘If we weren’t good, we wouldn’t be there.’ ”
The group has released nine albums, including an early house recording. The most recent issue is Hat Trick, a compilation culled from the band’s first three recordings. The latest release of new material is 2019’s Be Love, which concludes with Suter’s mother singing the gospel standard “I Just Got Off the Devil’s Train.” Suter’s own selections on the album are all original numbers that blend elements of rock, blues, soul, funk, and gospel.
Suter draws from a large pool of artists she has covered, with songs ranging from backwater blues to arena rock. Often, the selections have a concealed message. A particularly significant choice is George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity,” which Suter dedicated to Trayvon Martin, whose killing, in 2012, set the spark for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“That was a very sad time and that song, in my opinion, said a lot about people,” says Suter. The lyrics are “Isn’t it a pity, isn’t it a shame? How we break each other’s hearts, and cause each other pain?”
“I wanted people to look at the song,” continues Suter. “Not only listen to it, but look at the song and think about what part do you play in the healing, and what part do you play in wanting to help?”
Music is how Suter plays her part — using her talents to facilitate healing. “My main thing is love — if you can show that or give it,” she says. “Sometimes people have a hard time — love is the one thing that will get us through it no matter what the religion is. Love will get us through any and everything.”
A Worthy Suter
The event: The Alexis P. Suter Band plays a live drive-in concert
The time: Saturday, June 5; two shows, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
The place: Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Rd. in Truro
The cost: Tickets are $25 at payomet.org