The Battle for Memphis has begun. Every year, the city of Memphis, Tennessee hosts blues artists and fans from all over the world for a week of intense showdowns to determine who are the best bands working today. Winners of this prestigious event have gone on to sign with major labels, tour the world spreading the magic of the blues, and long and influential careers.
Success is not guaranteed, but many doors open when an artist or band is able to put the prefix “IBC Winner” in front of their name.
The River City Blues Society, Richmond’s blues society, starts their search earlier than many such groups, to ensure that they get some of the best acts entered for their competition.
Let me rant about the word “competition” for a minute. I do not feel that this is a competition, even though the act that comes out on top definitely receives some rewards. It’s a challenge, a celebration even, for the best of the best to raise their game and perform to the absolute best of their abilities. In a competition, only one person or group emerges victorious. In a challenge, everyone who enters it in the spirit of elevating their performance wins.
So does the audience members who are treated to amazing performances.
The River City Blues Challenge took place at the Capital Ale House in downtown Richmond on Sunday. There were eight acts entered in two categories: Solo/Duo and Group/Band, four in each.
The Solo/Duo Category consisted of Daniel “Mojo” Parker; James Lester and Gary Ford; Cole & Mary Ann; and Paul The Resonator and Vince “Fireball” Farabaugh. Only Parker and the tandem of Paul and Farabaugh had been entered in the challenge in prior years.
The performers in the Group/Band Category were Dan Schutt Band; Sorrento; Burn The Batteau; and Joe The Spy. None of these acts had taken part in any of the previous Blues Challenges.
The way the Challenge is decided is by a panel of judges who have a great deal of experience in the blues field, evaluating each act on a series of criteria that include blues content, originality, stage presence, and overall execution. This is to ensure that any act advancing to the IBCs will represent their area with the highest level of professionalism.
The judges for this challenge consisted of long time club owner and talent booker Randall Plaxa; musician, past IBC Finalist and current IBC Memphis judge Bobby BlackHat Walters; and the manager of the three-time IBC Semi-Finalists The Bush League, Kenya Watkins. One could really not hope for better judges of talent.
To make sure everyone had the same advantage, all performers used the same sound set up, which was controlled by the sound engineer, Bobby Phillips. Each act had a 30-minute window in which to perform and was allowed a 10-minute period to change out and reset the stage for their act.
It was a ballet of some precision to make sure that everything flowed smoothly, and for the most part, Phillips and the band members made that happen.
Unfortunately, due to my emcee duties, I was unable to take extensive notes about what each band played, but I was able to catch many of the performances from the back or side of the stage. Here are a few impressions, please forgive the quick sketches, much of their time on stage went by me like a speeding train.
Mojo Parker started things off, and I’ve known Parker for several years now and know him to be the consummate performer. He quickly got the audience involved with his high energy singing, playing, and foot stomping. He also engaged the audience, talking to them like old friends and by the time he left, anyone who didn’t know him before was a quick convert to new fan.
James Lester and Gary Ford were old friends who have recently reunited to play blues and roots music. They were very good, but somehow seemed like they were searching to find that groove that would ignite the audience. Still, I enjoyed their set, but Parker set the bar high.
Cole And Mary Ann, who came up from Nags Head were next, and they brought a great deal of energy to their performance. They traded off licks from Cole’s left-handed slide and Mary Ann’s soulful harp. I heard more than one person go crazy for her playing and with good reason, she’s damn good! In fact, this duo could very easily represent any blues society proudly in Memphis. They have a good chance of winning, and I’m keeping my eye on them for future CD releases.
Paul The Resonator and Vince Fireball Farabaugh were back again this year with some serious old-school style gospel tinged blues. I didn’t get much of a chance to listen this year, but am familiar with their work from the CD Soul Of A Man. Good act, but a little low-key in my opinion, they’re going to have an uphill battle if they’re going to take the challenge.
The Group/Band category started off with the Dan Shutt Band who were high energy, but not very bluesy. They are a local rock band who plays some bluesy rootsy numbers, but they were not as blues oriented as they could have been. A good band, I would love to hear them do a full set, but rock is more their specialty.
Sorrento was next, and they were a jazz-blues trio that was very good musically, but not as heavy on the blues side as they needed to be for the challenge. Plus, they had the disadvantage of calling out numbers rather than having a tight set planned. Again, I would love to hear them in their environment, but I don’t think they would be ready to represent in Memphis.
Next up was Burn The Batteau from Halifax, Virginia, which is near the North Carolina border. These guys were polished, sharp as a tack, and ready to play. They had a horn section of trumpet/flugelhorn and sax that set them apart from the other groups. I liked their sound a lot and with a little more seasoning think they could become a force to be reckoned with in the area.
The last act was Joe The Spy, a group that included a sax player, a conga drum percussionist, and a smoking lead singer in Apollonia Morris. I have very high hopes for the band and as performers, they did not disappoint. They were very entertaining and Morris has an enormous wealth of talent. I did not find them to be as blues centric as I would like, but they are high energy soul and I would love to see them do a full set sometime.
In the end, the judges decided on the top three acts for the day and they were: Number 3) Burn The Batteau; Number 2) Cole & Mary Ann; and Number 1) and the representative for this year’s IBC in Memphis – Mojo Parker.
Congratulations to all of the participants, and here’s looking ahead to next year. Good luck to Daniel Mojo Parker in Memphis – go for the glory my friend, you have the talent, you have the drive, and I hope you get the luck of the draw going forward.