"It's a little blues, a little classic rock, and a little funk," says local guitarist Nate Merli, one of four young musicians in ColeTrain, one of Charleston's bluesiest up-and-coming rock bands. "I guess we're trying out a little bit of everything."
Merli and drummer Tanner Cooper — both currently 15 years old — first started working on plans to form a band a little over a year ago while attending middle school together at the Charleston County School of the Arts. Their first attempt was with a garage band called The Blackbirds, which didn't work quite so well. Their second attempt, however, immediately showed great promise.
"Tanner and I first saw Sarah Cole [age 16] at the Lowcountry Blues Club's weekly blues night [at A Dough Re Mi], and we invited her to come jam with us," says Merli. "At practice, it really clicked, and we went from there. Chris Cool [age 16] was in our school jazz band, so we had him come audition, and the four of us all got along really well. For Tanner, Chris, and myself, this is first where we've gigged out as a band."
Merli started playing rock and blues with serious intensity after receiving an electric guitar for Christmas in 2006. He studied with local teacher Lee Yeager before acquiring an Epiphone Les Paul, buying a used Marshall amp and cabinet, and forming ColeTrain.
Cooper learned quickly, too, by ear and by formal instruction. At a few recent shows, he played an old Slingerland drum kit anchored with two big bass drums (the one at stage right read "COLE" in black print, and the other facing left read "TRAIN"). His usual pearl-finish kit looks and sounds identical to the Mitch Mitchell/Bonzo set-ups.
"I play through a Marshall amp and Sarah plays through a Fender Twin, so they sound pretty neat going back and forth," he adds. "Tanner has his old drum Slingerlands, and Chris plays through a nice rig, so we have a classic sound. It's all kinda old-school."
Cole already had a few years of professional gigging under her belt when she joined her bandmates, playing mostly with local blues-rock group Tommy Thunderfoot & The Accelerators at local clubs and festivals. Learning the ins and outs of booking, load-in, sound checks, and performances turned out to be valuable. On stage, she has a confident, stoic manner. She sings with surprisingly deep-toned voice and soulful style. And her graceful picking and strumming style complements Merli's explorations.
"I like Jack White and that White Stripes kind of stuff, but I also got into Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and that kind of thing, too. I really like that music. Sarah's always been into deep blues, and players like Susan Tedeschi and Jonny Lang."
The band's setlist is a healthy variety of originals and covers — mostly classic/classic rock tracks, vintage soul, and early funk. Merli and Cooper are on a major Zep/Hendrix trip throughout. If they had an organist and horns, their funkier material resembles Booker T. & The MGs or the Isley Brothers. Their harder-edged stuff draws from the psychedelic British guitar-hero rock of that class of '69.
"We wanted to do some covers that weren't too popular," says Merli. "That way, we wouldn't be just another typical cover band. We tried to pick some uncommonly covered songs, like [Hendrix's] 'Axis Bold as Love' and [Buddy Miles'] 'Them Changes.' With a song like Bill Withers' 'Use Me Up,' we get to showcase Sarah's voice, too. Chris is adding some slap bass, and Tanner is laying down some really cool beats, so it's getting a little more funky.