It was the hottest Sunday in quite a while in Richmond. The Capital Ale House Downtown had the air conditioning turned up high and the overhead fans were running full tilt boogie spreading the cool as far as they could.
Fortunately, there were eight bands and groups that were also ready to spread the cool. They were there to take part in the 13th Annual River City Blues Challenge to select the best group and solo or duo act to represent our fair city at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in January 2018.
Considering the prize of appearing in one of, if not the most prestigious gathering of blues talent in the world, the competition is high. The winners of the International Blues Challenge are seen by all of the major club owners and representatives from the best-known record labels looking for the next big talent.
Even those who do not take home the first place trophies still might find themselves connecting with agents, publicists, and other bands and artists who can open doors. Even if all those things don’t come to pass, friendships are established among artists and fans that can last a lifetime.
To appear in Memphis is a magical opportunity that can change a life in a flash. Only the best bands make it there, and the best of the best transcend their talent and move into the upper stratosphere of the blues.
The eight groups of artists all share that same dream, of appearing on the Rum Boogie stage on the night of the finals and blowing the judges and the audience away with a masterful set. It’s a great dream and can be a powerful way to focus all of one’s energy to achieving a great goal.
It was the three solo/duo acts that led off the afternoon. At the stroke of one o’clock I stepped onto the stage while the first group was getting ready. Each group is allowed to set up for ten minutes and has five minutes to break down after their performance.
Root2 Music, the first duo, was putting their finishing touches on adjusting their microphones when I walked out and introduced the event. As they were ready, it was a quick introduction and Nancy Reid and David Frank started their eclectic set of old-school acoustic blues and Appalachian tinged blues numbers.
A former winner of the Richmond Blues Challenge, they moved comfortably from song to song and picked up a number of fans along the way. Their approach to the music of the Delta and even some of the best known electric players was unique and they acquitted themselves very well.
After they finished it was time for Richmonder-by-way-of-Brooklyn Markiss Blowfish to take the stage. A solo act, it only took a few minutes to set up a chair, adjust his mics, plug in his guitar and start playing. Blowfish, who is also known as Mark Branch, worked his way through an impressive set of country blues and his rich voice and deft playing was a big hit.
Next up was the final entrant in the solo/duo category, Parker & Gray. The tandem of Daniel Parker and Scott Gray hail from Staunton and I have heard a good deal about them from friends in other part of the state. Nothing that I had heard prepared me for their energy and sheer bravado while performing. From Parker’s stomping at the beginning and Gray’s amazing harp playing I knew that these guys knew how to put on a show. They had the audience eating out of their hands from the start and it just got more intense as their performance when along.
While talking with them, I discovered that they were incredibly nice guys and that they had a recent CD released titled The Blues Look Good On You. They were kind enough to share one with me and I guarantee that I will be reviewing the album here and playing selections on Time For The Blues.
I didn’t envy the judges’ task of picking winners. In reality, they just assigned numbers to a series of categories; musicianship, originality, performance and the like, and the sum total decided the winners. The three officials were Randall B. Plaxa, who owned a series of clubs over the years, superfan Jeff Hansen and Dave Harrison, my other brother in blues who hosts the great podcast, BluzNdaBlood Radio Show at http://bluzndablood.libsyn.com/.
Now we were able to move into the group or band category which is defined as having three or more members. For the past couple of years, The Forrest McDonald Band had dominated the category and even made it to the semi-finals in Memphis in 2016. As a result of winning the previous two years, they were ineligible to compete in this year’s celebration. Before the groups kicked things off, there was a special presentation of thanks to Ellen Foster who served as the President of the River City Blues Society for several years and had now stepped down.
A fairly new group, The Brothers Hoodoo, started things off with an energetic set. The quartet flew through several numbers and really connected with the audience. They may have only been together for a few months, but they are a strong band and with a little more time to play together, they will be formidable competition for anyone.
The Tom Euler Band took the stage next, and I was delighted to see them. I’ve seen Euler as a guitarist for The Bobby BlackHat Walters Band and as a guest for one or two other bands, but I really wanted to see him do a full set. One of the main reasons is that he works with an amazing keyboardist, Lucy Kilpatick, whom I have known for years and absolutely love her jazz playing.
It was worth the wait as Euler and his bass player Von Jose Roberts put on a highly energetic set that played off of each other nicely. Kilpatrick filled in with some great keys and the crowd really got worked up and gave them several long ovations.
After that, it was time for In Layman Terms. I’ve covered the Layman family for approximately five years, writing about them for Blues Festival Guide and having them on Time For The Blues which led to an appearance on WCVE-TV’s Virginia Currents. Even knowing them as well as I do, this was a new lineup that included Hamed Barbarji on trumpet and Austin Pierce on drums joining Cole and Logan Layman on lead guitar and bass guitar and vocals respectively.
They ran through a set that was all originals except for a cover of a Muddy Waters’ song. The combination of them following the Tom Euler Band electrified the audience and it was great to see that the blues is in such good hands.
The next band, The George Taylor Group, continued the fun with a great collection of musicians running through some Americana music fueled by the blues. It was a good sounding group that I look forward to exploring further. Taylor has recorded two albums and I think I will be able to get my hands on copies in the next few weeks.
The last group, The Dear Johns, took the stage for one more set. They were an upbeat quartet that was out having a lot of fun and taking the audience along for the ride.
It was a long but fruitful day and I got the chance to hear a number of bands I might otherwise not get to see live. In the end, although all of the bands did a great job, the ultimate winners were Parker & Gray in the solo/duo category and The Tom Euler Band in the group category.
Congratulations to both, and thanks to all who participated and came out to support them!
(Photos by Jessie Wood. Used by permission. She also makes great art and fixes cars. Ask me to show you sometime...)