The heat finally broke after a day or so of long overdue rain, and the sky was a beautiful October blue, even though it was only July. After a leisurely drive from Richmond to Williamsburg, I was ready for the Natchel Blues Network Challenge to begin.
If you’ve not attended a Blues Challenge, it’s a gathering of some of the best blues acts in the area who showcase their best work as they try to get selected to represent one of the many blues societies in Memphis for the International Blues Challenge (IBC). The IBC is the largest gathering of blues acts on the planet and it all takes place in various venues over one week’s time. If you win an IBC, your career is pretty much set.
No matter the outcome, you’re bound to be seen by a fair number of people, and there will be labels, managers, and other power brokers that can help you further your position in the blues world. Even if you go as an audience member, you’re guaranteed to see some of the best acts from around the world all playing and jamming the night away.
To get there, you need to take the top position at one of the local challenges. In each challenge sponsored by a blues society, in this case the Natchel Blues Network which represents the area from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach, there were six who answered the challenge. There are three categories: youth (under 21), solo/duo, and group (three or more).
Today’s line-up did not include anyone in the youth category, there were four in the solo/duo category, and two in the group category. I was familiar with one of the solo/duo acts, Roots2 Music, who won the challenge in Richmond last year. They were joined by Tidewater Stomp, Ruth Wyand and The Tribe Of One, and Kelly Curtis.
Roots2 Music has an unusual sound, mixing sweet country blues with Appalachian Mountain music. It’s a great combination, although these days country blues can be a tough sale to audiences who have become accustomed to loud more raucous groups. Still they persevered, even though they were first out of the gate and the audience was still arriving while they were playing.
They played some originals and a few covers and even played a Luke Jordan tune. Jordan was a blues artist from Lynchburg whose work was primarily in the Piedmont style. His work hasn’t been covered by a lot of current artists, so it’s always good to hear Roots2 Music deliver their interpretation.
After they finished, Tidewater Stomp took the stage and demonstrated their eclectic playing. They opened up with a rollicking number with some sweet harp, then followed up with a heartrending ballad, and a wild instrumental that demonstrated just how tight of a sound they have.
Tom Dikon, the harp playing part of the duo, did most of the talking and worked the crowd like he’s been doing it his whole life. They ran through several more originals before finishing up their time.
Ruth Wyand, a 2017 finalist at the IBC, was next. Wyand is a solo performer with a guitar, tambourine, and two kick drums going simultaneously. She sings like an angel, plays guitar like a demon, and her percussion creates a mighty sound. I’ve caught a few one-person bands over the years with mixed results. Wyand is undoubtedly one of the best I’ve seen.
The last performers in the category went by the name of Kelly Curtis. The two performers each contributed one of their names to create the new duo. They ran into some trouble almost immediately when the guitarist’s instrument wasn’t connecting with the sound system and they stopped in mid song to locate a new one.
That’s why it’s called a challenge and not a competition. As an artist, you will face challenges – broken strings, persnickety sound, laryngitis – it’s up to you to rise above those challenges and continue to perform.
Kelly Curtis rose above that challenge but it was definitely a bit of a struggle for them. Still, they acquitted themselves very well.
Next up was the group portion of the show, starting off with In Layman Terms. Brother and sister Cole and Logan Layman along with their drummer Austin, and a trumpeter whose name I didn’t catch, ripped through a high energy set of mostly originals (one cover) and did a great job connecting with the audience.
The last performer of the afternoon was the Billy Jo Trio consisting of Billy Joe Daniel, Chris Serrano, and Kevin Payne. Daniel has a good slow hand on the guitar and the group handled their mix of originals and covers with ease. Daniel even did a little showboating and played the guitar behind his neck during one extended solo.
The event was staged at a great club in Williamsburg called The Triangle. It was my first visit there, but won’t be my last. They have a great stage and a delicious menu – well, the food was delicious, I never actually tasted the menu. Definitely worth the trip as they have lots of live music – a rarity in a lot of places.
After some deliberation, the winners were chosen Ruth Wynand And The Tribe Of One will be returning to Memphis to chase the solo/duo prize while In Layman Terms will also representing the Natchel Blues Network in the group category. There was a snafu in the scoring and The Billy Jo Trio was originally announced as the winners. The scoring has been corrected and apologies have been made to the group for the error.
Thanks to everyone at the Natchel Blues Network and The Triangle for a great afternoon and we’ll see you again next time!