You know, I really love my local Blues Society. Here in Richmond, VA, we are blessed with the River City Blues Society, a group of people that work hard in support of the music we love. (In the interest of total transparency, the River City Blues Society is an underwriter of Time For The Blues. I am not a member of the society as that would be a conflict of interest on my part, but I do support their work and events to the best of my ability.)
I also support two other Blues Societies, one in the Hampton-Newport News area of the state and another in the Charlottesville area as they do great work as well and one of my missions in life is to give back all I can to the music that has meant so much to me over the years.
Please understand, I’m giving this shout out to ALL of the Blues Societies around the globe to publicly thank them for the work they do. One of the best things they do is find talented performers to represent them at the International Blues Challenge held every year in Memphis. It’s every blues musician’s dream to get a chance to play on Beale Street and every January hundreds of those dreams come true.
For the musicians it’s a chance to be discovered by record companies, club owners, radio producers, and other musicians with whom they could form lasting friendships. For the rest of us, the music is its own reward.
Sunday afternoon, June 10th, at the Capital Ale House downtown, nine acts prepared to show off their talents in front of a good sized crowd, and three judges who would determine who would be the ones representing Richmond next year in Memphis.
Fortunately for me, I was not one of those judges. I have served in that capacity in the past and carried out my duties faithfully, but this year, all nine of the acts were strong – very strong and choosing one over another proved to be a difficult endeavor.
Instead, I was honored to serve as the Master of Ceremonies for the event, running up on stage in between the acts to keep the audience engaged while the crack sound crew (thank you Cy Taggart and company) changed over the set up to accommodate each set of performers.
If you’re not familiar with the rules for the blues challenge, each act has 30 minutes in which to perform. If you go over that time, there is a penalty subtracted from your total score which could cost you your victory. I’ve seen it happen. The sound crew only has 10 minutes to break you down and set up the next act and you have to be ready to start. So, the sound pit crew has a lot of pressure on them and there were only 2-3 guys on each set up with the bands having to supply whatever extra manpower was necessary.
My job was making announcements, telling bad jokes, and dodging bodies as they ran around the stage moving things.
The afternoon started at 1:00 with the solo/duo category. We always do that first as the set ups are easier and much quicker to perform. Usually.
The first act was Old Soul, a duo comprised of Jon Spear on guitar and vocals and Dara James on vocals, guitar, and harp. I’ve known both of these men for several years but only knew them from their larger group, The Jon Spear Band. They performed six songs within their time, five originals and a cover of Robben Ford’s Nothing To Nobody.
The second duo, Paul The Resonator and Vince “Fireball” Farabaugh, came down from Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where they escaped the current flooding due to excess rain, in order to showcase their talents. As you might assume from Paul’s nickname, he played a wicked Resonator guitar with the Fireball playing a mean harp to accompany him. I had not seen them perform before, but really enjoyed their work a lot.
The last competitor in this category were my old friends Root2 Music, a combo comprised of David Frank on guitar, harmonica and vocals and Nancy Reid on fiddle and vocals. They have represented Richmond previously and perform a very cool mix of Appalachian Music and Country Blues. I’ve always enjoyed their performances and am actually planning a trip to the Peaks Of Otter Lodge for an upcoming Saturday evening concert.
All three of these challengers put on great performances and it was evident that this was going to be a tough competition. While everyone in the crowd was picking out their favorites, it was obvious that there were no dark horses. They were all solid and would make fine representatives of the River City.
The first group to performs in the band/group category was one that while I had heard of them, I had not seen them perform previously. The group, PumpHouse, was an extremely high energy sextet that played bigtime funky blues with a tight horn section. Their Chicago-style performance was a stark contrast from the previous groups and they quickly whipped the crowd into raucous applause. It’s safe to say that they rocked the house and set the bar high for all the groups that would follow them.
The next group was the power trio the Josh Lief Blues Band, that consists of Lief on guitar and vocals, Deb Flood on drums, and Tommy Dacat on bass and vocals. Lief is a monster on the guitar and plays in that driving southern rock style and his energy is matched by both Flood and Dacat. Because of their extensive leads, they were only able to squeeze in four songs, but still gave a rocking performance that kept the audience’s energy up to the highest level.
The audience had to take the ten minutes between Lief and the next group, Clarence “The Bluesman” Turner to catch their breath and get their drink orders in. Turner is a first rate blues artist, and he works in that old school style personified by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He sticks to the basics and managed to keep the crowd excited by his work.
The first three groups have performed, and all of them were brand new to me. Aside from being unusual, it was also exciting as I love to find new music for myself and to share with my audience. So far, I had collected CDs from just about all the groups and will be posting reviews on them shortly.
One more new-to-me group came out of the Northern Virginia-DC area, and brought some serious rocking blues with them. Moonshine Society, made up of Black Betty on vocals, Joe Poppen on guitar, Tod Ellsworth on bass and Bary Hart on drums. Betty is a superb entertainer who is very charismatic and worked her way into the audience’s collective heart. She did a couple of rocking numbers before channeling Etta James for a cover of the classic, I’d Rather Go Blind.
The last couple of acts were some of my old friends, starting with In Layman Terms, a group built around the brother and sister team of Cole and Logan Layman. They are joined by Hamed Barbarji on trumpet and percussion and Austin Pierce on drums. They show a lot of moxie and perform a set that is anchored by four songs they wrote last week and haven’t performed live yet. They delivered like the long-time pros that they are and received two standing ovations for their efforts.
The final performers were the Forrest McDonald Band, a group that has been to the semi-finals at previous Memphis excursions. McDonald is a great guitar player and when teamed with vocalist Becky Wright that take over the stage and pour out some of the best blues you’re ever going to hear. I was listening backstage to their performance and was pretty much knocked out by Wright’s powerful version of I Put A Spell On You, and the wickedly funny Chicken Scratch Boogie.
I pitied the judges as they really had their work cut out for them. In the end I had to stretch another 10 minutes as the voting was the closest it has ever been for a blues challenge. In the end, Root2 Music won the solo/duo category, and the top three acts in the band/group category were, in ascending order, The Forrest McDonald Band, Clarence “The Bluesman” Turner, and the winner was In Layman Terms.
Congratulations to all the performers and to Greg Willard for once again producing this great event. Thanks to our judges, Noah Stidham, Roger Carroll, and Radall Plaxa; and to our sound crew headed by Cy Taggart.
The real winner was definitely the audience who was in attendance, and I hope that you will support your local blues society, attend their blues challenge, and get involved with them. It will change your life.