Parked beneath an ever-present chapeau, mild-mannered Nate Coffey is a superhero without the cape and tights under his street clothes. Despite his encyclopedic knowledge of the guitar, bass, and more, this unassuming cat is steeped in modesty. He plays loud but isn't what you'd call a boisterous person. He plays his own guitar but doesn't honk his own horn. You might even say he's bashful.
Coffey becomes one with whatever instrument he is playing, in whatever style he is playing, and with whichever band he's playing. Come to think of it, I've never seen Nate Coffey without an instrument — guitar, bass, drumsticks, whatever — in his hands. The man is music ... all kinds of music.
"I'm not a one-trick pony," Coffey says. "People don't know all the stuff I do. 'Oh, I didn't know you played flamenco guitar; I didn't know you played upright bass.' I try to be modest and not come across as some bonehead egomaniac. And that may hold me back a bit. But I'm starting to let that go."
As guitarist for The Buddhahood, Coffey jumps on board the brass section's blast of bombast, with the band, in turn, giving him carte blanche to riff at will. When teamed up with singer-songwriter Teressa Wilcox's delicate storm, his bass cradles and roots the chanteuse's mezza-soprano, all the while sending harmonic responses skyward that beautifully counter the melody. Coffey's playing style is a kind of open-ended, blues-based wail.
And that's not all, folks. Coffey positively rocks finger-style flamenco guitar as a Spanish guitar duo with Matt Sauer every Friday happy hour at Havana Cabana. In addition, people can see him play a little bit of everything on Wednesday nights at Murph's Pub in Irondequoit where he holds an open jam.
Coffey caught the bug early on. He started out at age 11 as a drummer in his dad's band, BC Enterprise, before landing a weekly gig with Uncle Big Bad and the Railroad Movement at Mastrella's Steak House.
"I was making 50 bucks a week," Coffey says. "I was happy."
Next, he and his cousin formed No Control. It was the big 1980's and Coffey says he learned every Bonham lick there was. And he dressed the part.
"I had zebra-striped pants, cut my shirt into fringe," he says. "My girl had the big hair and the tight jeans. It was great." No Control won a battle of the bands at the Dome Arena.
Things kicked into high gear when Coffey turned 16.
"My mom came home from work with a guitar case a co-worker had in his closet," Coffey says. "I opened it up. It was a 1976 Fender P-Bass. My jaw dropped. I was like, 'I'm in,' so I spent two weeks up in the attic learning my dad's music. He made me audition; he was tough on me. I had to cut it. And within two weeks, I replaced his bass player." This, all the while he was learning the guitar.
Coffey's tenure in his dad's band taught him to listen and feel, qualities that have made him an in-demand session player and side man. But unlike other multi-instrumentalists, Coffey doesn't approach an instrument with the rudiments and application of another. He plays guitar as a guitar player.
"I totally hear my place in whatever element I'm in," he says. "And as a bass player, you've got to support the guitar player, you got to lock in with that drummer."
Coffey's bass playing is rhythmic and supportive yet melodic. It's definitely more than just part of the foundation.
"I try to color the music wherever it's appropriate," he says. "To enhance it. That's my whole goal: to enhance. If I'm playing with other people, I'm going to be a supportive player."
In addition, Coffey has played and produced in the studio and played live with more area artists including Joff Wilson, Jimmie Highsmith Jr., Brian Rath, and the late Paulie Rocco.
It's all sort of like, "Insert Coffey here." To clear up his chameleon status, Coffey has just released his third CD, "Rise Above It," an eight-song slab of pure Coffey that's steeped in a groove-conscious attack centered around a jazzy nonchalance and progressive attitude. There's funk; there's jazz; there's even a little retro soul-pop number called "Shooting Star" that Marvin Gaye would have loved to get his hands on.
With so many outlets for his music, Coffey starts out writing a song with no clear destination. "I write first before assigning it," he says.
And you too can learn to play like Coffey — or you can try anyway. Coffey teaches bass and guitar at Northfield Music, Experience Music, and The House of Guitars.
Coffey has traveled some, playing his guitar in Spain, South America, and Jamaica. He even winds up getting gig's when on vacation. He can't help himself.
"I'll take a vacation, meet some people, and end up getting a gig," he says. And because he gets carsick easily he doesn't tour as much as he'd like in and around the states. "After about five hours, I'm like, 'Where's the Dramamine?' But he plays it safe and avoids the lifestyle associated with working musicians like his dad.
"He lived life to the fullest and burned out too quickly," Coffey says. "I do play it safe. I don't do massive amounts of drugs; I'm not on tour; I'm relatively healthy. I'm all about spreading the good vibes, and spreading the love with a positive feeling."
Punk-metal icon Wendy O. Williams will be inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame on Sunday. Plasmatics guitarist Wes Beech and Rod Swenson, the band's creator and Williams' life partner, talk about the legacy of the singer.