How Blue Can you Get?
I am a mid-century modern blues lover and loyal attendee at the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival. On festival days you’ll find me in the front row wearing my donkey farmer hat. Following the sage advice of festival rats, I cashed in my miles for the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis. This is a serious competition for blues artists. Local blues chapters send a band, solo and youth contestants to compete for valuable gig laden prizes. Our Cascade Blues Association in Portland sent Sister Mercy, the Solo/Duo act Rogue Rage Duo and Justus Reece for the Youth Showcase.
By the numbers: five nights, 840 musicians, 121 bands from thirteen countries, nine prizes, gigs for the top three bands, thirty-two years running. Pace yourself, the MC advised.
Memphis is my ancestral home; my family has lived there for over 100 years. But most of my life has been in the Northwest. This adventure was chance to see the family and hear live performances by the blues stars of the future.
The Keys to the Highway
Getting to Memphis from Portland isn’t easy. With delays, we didn’t get in until 2:00AM. Did I mention there were celebrities on the plane? Portland’s own entry, Sister Mercy! Driving in Memphis is easy, from the terminal gate to my mom’s: 30 minutes. She didn’t wait up.
Beale Street, Memphis is blues ground zero. The blues forefathers, like young Riley Blues Boy King made the trip from the Mississippi cotton fields to play in the clubs, busk on the street and drink in the bars.
Beale Street was ravaged in the garbage strike, but today it has a vibrant scene with more than twenty bars and music clubs. On any night, you’ll hear the artists pounding it out for covers and tips from music lovers, tourists, conventioneers, and frat boys from around the globe.
The competition is held in the clubs where the artists perform for judges Wednesday through Friday. Saturday, the sixteen finalists compete for the grand prizes in the Orpheum Theater. Enough back-story, let’s get to the music.
It’s not possible to see every performance, take it from me I tried! In a completely biased, un-statistically significant study I’m here to report my favorite bands. Full disclosure, I am a guitar player so brace yourself for a few geeky gear references.
Every Day I have the Blues
Tuesday, International Showcase.
On Beale Street, the musicians outnumber the audience members. Twenty four bands perform tonight in six clubs. Showcase events are free.
Sometimes the first band kills it. And that’s what happened here.
Band: T-Roosters, Representing: Deltablues Association, Genoa Italy
Venue: Wet Willies
Guitar: Epiphone Casino (with foam in the f-holes)
When the Tiziano “Rooster” the frontman cranked up the Epiphone, you could almost smell the fried catfish . How could artists from so far away capture the delta sound so perfectly? Sadly many people in Memphis don’t know or care much about blues. The set included an original song with a clear Italian influence. The band delivered an excellent updated John Lee Hooker classic.
Wednesday: Quarter Finals
121 bands in twelve clubs. Each band gets twenty minutes, which goes by super fast
1) Band: Sister Mercy Representing: Cascade Blues Association, Portland OR
Venue: Tin Roof
Guitar: Gibson Les Paul Tobacco Sunburst
The Sisters April (lead) and Kelsey opened with their ‘Sister Mercy’ name song. By a mile, the band had the best vocals I’d seen so far with the three ladies singing in harmony. And they were the only act so far to feature any dance moves. The crowd loved them…and when April sang the “get out” song, she really sold it.
2) Band: White Knuckle Trio Representing :Helsinki Blues Society, Helsinki Finland.
Guitars- Stratocaster, one of the few I’d seen so far
Venue: Hard Rock Café.
This amazing power trio featured the best table dancing guitar player of the night. This band had personality. The drummer sang in perfect English, with attitude while keyboard held the bass line.
Thursday- Quarter Finals
The bands get one more chance, same club, different schedule, different judges.
Favorite Band: Lampano Alley, Representing: Blues Asia Network, Philippines.
Guitar: Telecaster Thinline with humbuckers.
We expected great vocals. The twenty-four year-old harp player stole the show. It was the best harp playing I’d heard so far. I had a chance to meet the guys, they handed me their CD and would not take any money. I owe them drinks.
These are my favorites. I saw ten bands each night and was home by midnight. How could it get any better?
How Many More Times?
Friday AM- after three nights on Beale Street I looked like something the cat dragged in. A walk in the warm Memphis sun brought me back to life.
Friday night, managed to catch most of traditional southern Jewish Shabbat dinner at my mom’s house with challah, chicken soup, kosher BBQ and sweet wine. I missed dessert. Made it to Beale Street to see the end of Sister Mercy. The club was packed and the set was awesome. If you are keeping score, all of my favorites made to to the semi-finals. Spoiler alert, this would be the Sisters’ last night.
Favorite Band: Michael Lee Band, Representing: San Angelo Blues Society, San Angelo, Texas
Michael is a young guitar slinger who harkens back to the early days of Jonny Lang. (Jonny turned thirty five today). Playing in the style of the masters, and while bouncing on stage in sneakers. “Don’t Leave me” was an incredibly dramatic tune. Michael sang without a mike, and threw the poor Strat on the ground to drive it home. It made me wonder, how could anyone leave after that?
Ain’t Nobody’s Business…
Saturday morning, I’m living the blues. 10:00 AM, I’m in synagogue with my mom and brother. 2:00 PM, I’m at the show enjoying a local micro-brew. In infinite festival rat wisdom, I’d paid the extra twenski for a reserved seat, twelfth row center. The staff told me that there were hundreds of the people lined up for the opening.
Favorite Band: Paul DesLauriers Band Representing: Montreal Blues Society, Montreal, Canada.
Guitars: Gibson White Double neck ES1275, Les Paul Special TV Yellow Double Cutaway
They had me when the band wheeled out a guitar stand with three guitars. This was my favorite band of the day (Spoiler alert, they didn’t win). The Love in Vain cover was neither Robert Johnson nor Mick Jagger but a fantastic updated piece with a driving slide solo. They were the only band I heard play rockabilly. I had a chance to meet Paul in the lobby. Fist bump when I said “ES1275.”
Paul goes on to take second place for best band. Mazel Tov Paul!
By now, it’s after 6:00 PM and the silent auction is over. I collect my winnings: an eight disc Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl set. Hey it’s for a good cause right?
A little bashful, I accept Sister Mercy’s invitation (thanks Debby) to the after party at their rented loft. Meeting the musicians makes the experience exponentially more rewarding. This was a family party with the Brown sisters, dad, and spouses for BBQ and drinks. I got an inside peek into the Portland Pro music scene. Debby Espinor broke it down for me. The band has been together for less than one year. The instrumentalists discovered April singing in church. April told me she loved gospel. Playing five shows on Beale Street was a huge honor for the group and gave them blues cred back on the west coast. Now I’ve been to Beale before and I can almost guarantee that some of the regular players would find it just as exciting taking a plane trip to the west coast. Some are pretty poor. The band has great contacts and leads for the future, and a great story for their bio. They will go back to Portland, their day jobs, and try to turn this into more bookings.
I Can’t Quit You
The wrap up. So why do I do this?
This was more live music than I could see in a year. But why does that matter? I could listen to recordings or streamings all day long and hear just as much music. Some of it probably better, and almost all of it mixed very well. Listening to the recordings is not the same as going to the shows. Why are the shows so much better? It is the connection to the artists. Seeing the bands play live is completely real. You see and hear the artist pouring their hearts out, telling their stories to you: live. You see the sweat and tears, you feel the love, pain, sorrow and well…blues. They are performing works that they’ve practiced for hours, often years to hone to perfection. No re-takes or do overs. Meeting the bands and the wonderful talented musicians adds an incredible depth. People say they are “keeping the blues alive” . For me this is keeping music alive. If you have a chance to support live music, please do it for all of us. Catch the shows, the festivals, hire the bands, and support the organizations. The artform is threatened and we all have to keep it alive.
To all the festival lovers- I highly recommend this event. The talent is phenomenal, the tickets are quite reasonably priced, the showcases are free. The Blues Foundation in Memphis does a wonderful job…and, it’s Beale Street!
To the Portlanders- I’ll see you at the Waterfront Blues Festival. I’ll be the guy in the front row wearing the donkey farmer hat.
Jazzy Jeff Levine
‘Burbs of Portland