I was walking with my feet 10 feet off of Beale
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Beale Street felt like heaven.
I wore a lanyard with a pass that allowed free entry into all of the clubs on a three-block stretch, and this week every one of them had blues bands.
My employer generously paid for the trip. I was in Memphis to receive the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.
Coinciding with the ceremony honoring nonartists was February’s International Blues Challenge, a competition for bands, solo/duos and youth. Each participant qualified for the event by winning a competition by their local blues club. The winning band won $2,000 and was invited to perform on next fall’s Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise. Moreover, all of the bands had the opportunity to perform before record label executives, managers, promoters and club owners.
Despite the worst Midwest winter storm in decades, all 193 bands and artists made it to their gigs. That’s the way blues musicians roll.
My first stop was the Hard Rock Cafe, where I met Alligator Records President Bruce Igular face-to-face for the first time. Bruce is the person who nominated me. I’ve featured many Alligator artists in Lake Tahoe Action. Igular was scouting for talent and he wanted to hear Canadian harpist David Rotundo.
Next it was on to the Rum Boogie Cafe, an old, corner, two-story bar with a swirling staircase and signed instruments mounted on the walls, including Bob Margolin’s guitar and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith’s bass drum. Both played in Muddy Waters’ band.
I was there to see the Jason King Band, the first Reno Blues Society had ever sent to the IBC. Jason’s my friend, and I told the organizers I had to recuse myself from judging his band. I would be a judge the next night during the semifinals.
Jason played an energized set but his guitar wasn’t turned up loud enough, I thought. Four of the five songs had the standard blues chord structure. But one of the judges, I later learned, said the songs sounded more like rock ‘n’ roll than blues.
Bands were judged for five things, originality, stage presence, musicianship, vocals and, most importantly, blues structure. The foundation doesn’t want to crown a band that isn’t blues based.
Before exploring the rest of Beale Street, it was time to eat, and Blues City Cafe was recommended by everybody. Memphis is a tough place to eat if you are a vegetarian, but my wife loved the ribs. A group of extremely tall men in sweat suits walked in the door. “They have to be a basketball team,” I said, fortunately not to them because I might have had an awkward response. It was the Cleveland Cavaliers who the next night lost their 24th-straight game to the Memphis Grizzlies.
After the meal I had an appetite for more blues. The bands played at 11 Beale Street venues and I would try to stay for at least two songs at each. I was trying to prepare myself to be a fair judge. I saw 13 bands that first night, and my favorites were Lisa Mann & Her Really Good Band, the Pitbull Blues Band, Ellie Lee & Blues Fury and, I’m admittedly biased, but also the Jason King Band.
Half of the bands would be eliminated that first night, and an announcement was expected at 11:30 p.m., after a set by John Nemeth, one of the “pros.” We sat with Jason and his band mates Michael Patrick Moore, Tommy Stiles and Paul Squellante. Everyone was in a celebratory mood. I was certain the Reno quartet would advance to the next round. By 1 a.m. it was just me, my wife and Jason at the table and no announcement had been made. We decided to go back to the hotel.
Jason was pretty bummed when I saw him the next day. His reaction was the same as all the other musicians I spoke with after they were knocked out of the competition. All it takes is one judge to eliminate a band, and one who was scoring Jason’s band didn’t think he was blues enough.
It was time for me to judge. I sat at a table near the stage with my two scoring partners, Memphis WEVL-radio’s Brett Flemming and guitarist Eddie Turner. I had heard three of Eddie’s songs on the radio since I learned he would be a fellow judge, and he was surprised when I told him so.
“I’ve never heard on of my songs on the radio,” he laughed. “People tell me they hear me on the radio all the time, but I never have.”
A trio from Seattle called The Wired! Band was the first onstage. The acrobatic Kevin Sutton didn’t even use a microphone when he belted out “Minnie the Moocher,” jumping throughout the crowd and over furniture in the Rum Boogie Cafe. I noted that he made a couple of mistakes on the guitar. The first band, I knew, would be the toughest to score. It would set my judging standard, and I knew The Wired! might have been the best or the worst I would see.
Another trio, Sweet Felicia & the Honeytones from Melbourne, Australia, was next. Sweet Felicia played bass and sang.
“She might not even know it, but she’s got it,” Turner said.
A quartet from Washington, D.C., Clarence “the Blues Man” Turner was next. An IBC top 10 finisher in 2007, the band was clearly the best, I thought. However, two of its five songs were covers, so I had to give it low marks for originality.
The Sugar Prophets, a newly formed quartet from Illinois, were strong in every category. But its big red-headed frontman Josh Spence seemed pissed off, and his lyrics were a bit crude and juvenile, kind of like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But the band had a fantastic guitarist.
A New York quintet, the Blueshounds, had the largest following of fans. They were upbeat and the music was fun, but some of them stood like statues, so I marked them down for stage presence.
Down Beale at the New Daisy Theater, Karen Lovely was host of a pro jam which included some national artists like Trampled Under Foot, Kate Moss and my judging partner Eddie Turner. Lovely’s career ascended after she finished second last year in the IBC. She’s nominated this year for three Blues Music Awards.
A depressed Jason King walked in from out of the rain and told us “Not playing is worse than losing.” Joan, my wife, answered, “Well you can’t play without your guitar.” He went back to the hotel to get his Stratocaster. An hour later King was smiling onstage, jamming with Michael, Tommy and Ellie Lee, who was also eliminated on the first night.
The bands selected for the finals were announced, and to my surprise the Sugar Prophets were one of them.
The next evening in the spectacular, six-level Orpheum Theater the Lionel Young Band, a six-piece from Boulder Colo., was voted IBC champions.
Earlier that day, it was my time to bask in glory.
There were 21 Keeping the Blues Alive recipients, and I was the 19th to stand at a podium in front of 300 people in a packed conference room and make a speech. I was terrified. I remember what Joan told me after she heard me speak on the radio. “You sure say ‘uhh’ a lot,” she said. But saying “uhh” sure beats stuttering, I thought, although I knew I was capable of both in front of a live crowd.
The people who spoke before me were amazing. The honorees are basically receiving a lifetime achievement award. French promoter Didier Tricard told the tale of his fight to allow Buddy Guy’s guitar to be brought onto the plane and into his country for his first recording session. Causing an airport ruckus like that now would get you arrested. Johnny Winter’s manager explained the artist’s struggles extensive health issues in recent years. And Debra Ruger from Blind Pig Records brought everyone to tears speaking about Robin Rogers who died months after releasing the greatest album of her career.
Reno promoter and publisher Kaati Gaffney, who was sitting at my table, noticed my pensiveness. “Just tell them what you do,” she said.
I knew what I was going to say after filmmaker Mako Funasaka, during his speech, showed a short film with interviews with different artists. People were moved when they saw and heard comments from Guy, Dr. John and Curtis Salgado. I reminded myself that I had interview those folks, too. And they said the same things to me, and I wrote them down for Lake Tahoe Action’s readers. I felt confidence growing.
Once I started speaking in the microphone, I was fine. In 27 years in newspapers, I have learned people like talking about themselves, and I am no exception.
Dr. John once told me most of the reporters who interview him “have the story written before they even talk to me,” he said, praising my style, saying it was the highlight of his week. Dr. John’s compliment was probably the highlight of my music-writing career – that was, until Memphis.
“Before I interview someone, I do my homework,” I told the crowd. “Then I let them talk. I don’t have any set plan for how I want the story to go. I let them tell their story.”
After my speech, I knew I’d done well. Igular flashed me a thumbs up. Delta Groove Records President Rand Chortkoff came up to shake my hand. I was congratulated by Sirius XM’s Bill Wax, the best DJ in the business, who said my interview approach is the same as the one he uses.
And Joan said, “You didn’t say ‘uhh’ once.”