Waterfront Blues Festival site of Independence Day showdown
By Rob Cullivan

Whether it was a harmonica-blowing, guitar-strumming duo on stage or a funky danceable good time band, all types of performers made the first round of the Cascade Blues Association’s Journey to Memphis contest an aural feast for listener’s ears.

Dozens of Blues fans came down to The Lehrer, 8775 S.W. Canyon Lane, Beaverton, June 6-7 to hear two nights worth of music from a variety of bands and acts. Crowds enjoyed everything from soulful slide guitar runs to jumpin’ jams.

As CBA President Greg Johnson put it, “We’ve got a real eclectic group of musicians here this year — the blues can take all kinds of avenues.”

The first round’s four winners included repeats Ben Rice & The iLLamatics (who went to Memphis earlier this year as the CBA’s band rep), the Rae Gordon Band  and David Pinsky & Phil Newton, both of whom who represented Eugene’s Rainy Day Blues Society in Memphis this past January, and newcomers Still Water Vibes.  All four acts will strut their stuff at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland Friday, July 4, with the highest scoring act amongst the three bands going on to Memphis, Tenn., next January for the International Blues Challenge.

Pinsky says he and Newton are thrilled to have been selected for the July 4 finals. Pinsky & Newton are already guaranteed a trip to Memphis as the only solo/duo act to make the finals.

“The title of our next album is called ‘Over the Moon,'” and I am over the moon,” he said. “I’m really honored. Another bucket listing I get to cross off my list.”

At The Lehrer, the acts competed before judges Alan Spinrad, Brendan O’Donnell and Tim Shaughnessy. Each act played a 20-minute set and were scored in five categories — blues content, vocals, instrumentation, originality and stage presence.

The first night at The Lehrer, a packed and chatty house sampled the Pat Stillwell Band, a blues-rock trio with an easygoing vibe and competent, clean arrangements. Folks seemed to dig the group, which drew a nice round of applause at the end of its set, which would likely appeal to fans of Buddy Guy and Robert Cray.

Next up were Ben Rice and the iLLamatics, who came on as strong like moonshine splashed on the face of a sleeping hobo in a boxcar. Rice and company roused the crowd with an over-the-top performance that featured drummer Ryan Rustrum banging his sticks not just on the skins, but a table, the floor and bassist Cahlen Uhlig’s strings. It was clear the moment the iLLamatics left the stage to a loud ovation they were one act to beat.

Fans of the Black Keys and White Stripes would probably enjoy the night’s third act, Land of the Living, a guitar-drums duo that specializes in “voodoo-mud” to quote axeman Kivett Bednar. Along with drummer Anthony Pausic, Bednar proved himself to have a touch of Gregg Allman in his vocal soul, and John Lee Hooker in his music.

Act No. 4 Anne Weiss boasted a lovely just-shy-of-Janis-Joplin type voice and is well known in these parts as a multi-genre folk artist, and drew warm applause for her efforts.

Then the night’s other winner, the Rae Gordon Band, took the stage. The dance floor got packed and at times it felt like everyone was in an old school burlesque club as the group sweated out sexy, slinky music, funky soul and country blues.

Every act got a run for its money, however, when jump blues cats Papa Dynamite & The Jive took the stage — zowie! Serving up blues music with a bit of mambo and chased down with a shot of tonal tequila, this outfit was the perfect act to end the evening, putting the “un” into fun and leaving dancers and listeners with smiles on their faces. Singer Jen Tyler, a relative newcomer to the scene, brought great earth-shakin’ energy to the stage while saxophonist “Butcher” Pete Galluzo served up thick slabs of beefy blues lines.

Saturday shuffle
Martin Henry & The Blues Benders kicked off the second evening’s fun, with a strong traditional harp and guitar attack, punctuated by the vocals of Traci Brown. The band faced an immediate challenge for the competition as their keyboardist, Tim Doyle, a true glue of the unit, had fallen ill the night before and was unable to make the event.

The June 7 round also featured Tim Connor, who picks the guitar with the precision of a harpist plucking strings, creating clearly defined melodic lines. A one-time Guitar Champion of the Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Union Grove, N.C., Connor would appeal to fans of Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins and other like-minded finger-pickers.

Pinsky & Newton were the Sonny Terry-Brownie McGhee combo of the night, with David Pinsky singing baritone-tenor blues and Phil Newton responding on the Mississippi saxophone, munching on his tin sandwich while Pinsky walked the audience down the road on guitar. Both nattily dressed gentlemen briefly played a duet on harmonicas before modulating into their version of “Smokestack Lightnin’.”

When Salem’s Gabriel Cox and his band hit the stage, they opened with a foot-marching acapella gospel stomp that got the crowd excited. “I ain’t no wolf/But I am howlin’/I ain’t no king/But I’ve got a crown,” they sang as appreciative audience members occasionally whooped and whistled like a church congregation moved by a preacher. Standout tunes by Cox’s band included “Ricochet,” a funky blues number that included shout-outs to Gary Moore and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Acoustic-guitarist-singer Tevis Hodge, Jr., who won the solo artist slot last year in the CBA Journey finals, provided a moment of mirth when he noted he’d forgotten his slide and had to borrow an empty hot sauce bottle from The Lehrer kitchen. Hodge is clearly one of the Portland area’s — maybe even the country’s — rising acoustic blues stars, soaking his tunes in ragtime, jazz and folk and ringing out Robert-Johnson-meets-Son-House melodies in the process.

Finally, Still Water Vibes, another great band from Salem (what is in the water there?) took the stage. Funky, bluesy and in the pocket, this capital city outfit was fronted by powerhouse vocalist Nick Wixom, who clearly has spent time wood-shedding his voice, which moved effortlessly over the band’s danceable grooves.

When Still Water Vibes was done, it was clear the judges would have a tough job ahead of themselves, and many folks in the crowd said they were glad they didn’t have to pick between all the fine acts.

Further on up the road
Johnson notes Still Water Vibes, David Pinsky & Phil Newton, Rae Gordon and Ben Rice & The iLLamatics all have a great shot at traveling to Tennessee next January.

“We have a lot of repeat acts year after year,” states Johnson. “That is because those who have been to Memphis know what they can gain and those they’ve spoken with want that same opportunity. The CBA has a history of sending really good acts that do well at the IBC. All of these finalists have the right stuff to make some noise in Tennessee.”

Johnson also thanked all the CBA Board of directors as well as volunteers who helped out with the show, from manning the merchandise table to greeting patrons at the door, as well as Brad Lehrer and his staff at the club for hosting the semifinals.

“The next phase happens at the Waterfront Blues Festival,” notes Johnson. “Three new judges will score out four finalists. They have quite a tough job ahead of them.”

Please join the Journey to Memphis Finals shortly after noon on the Front Porch Stage, July 4th.

Journey to Memphis Finals Set Order / Times:
12:10 – David Pinksy & Phil Newton
12:40 – Ben Rice & The iLLamatics
1:20 – Still Water Vibes
2:00 – Rae Gordon Band