Scott Pohl, producer for WKAR-FM’s “Current State,” will be tracking the progress of the Twyla Birdsong Band and Stan & Ben at this year’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
WEDNESDAY, Jan. 27 — The International Blues Challenge is getting underway in Memphis, and Twyla Birdsong and her band are here on a mission to let the world know how strong Lansing’s music scene can be. The group won a Capital Area Blues Society competition for the right to be here. Stan Budzynski and Ben Hall, aka Stan & Ben, are also representing Lansing in the duo category. I'm in Memphis with friends to track the groups’ progress and to check out blues players from all over the world.
The competition gets into full swing today, but the Rum Boogie Café on the “Avenue of Blues,” Beale Street, hosted a jam session yesterday that featured top-notch talent trading licks all night long.
I ran into Hall briefly, but he wasn't playing in the session — at least not before I called it a night. Just about everybody in Birdsong’s band hit the stage at one point or another, though.
Musicians signed up and were called to the bandstand in order based on their instrumentation. There usually were two guitarists, a keyboard player, a bassist and a drummer, sometimes joined by harmonica player. I also heard a couple of trombonists and even a flute player during the course of the night. (That’s the first blues flautist I've ever heard). Once on stage, the musicians had to hit it fast and hard; nobody got more than a song or two to make an impression. Men and women of all races and colors jammed with players they had just met.
The joint has two levels, and I spent most of the evening upstairs looking down at the artists. Musicians and fans were cheek to jowl everywhere. You could hardly turn around without the risk of bumping into a guitar or knocking a bass case over. (Yes, I did that. Sorry.)
The new-to-me artist who made the biggest impression was Angel Forrest, a Joplin-esque shouter from Canada. She handed me a card boasting of being named female vocalist of the year three years running at the Toronto Blues Society’s Maple Blues Awards. I'll be watching for her.
In familiar-to-me artists, Birdsong’s rendition of the Muddy Waters’ “Big Leg Woman” stood out in a field of strong singers.
The competition begins in earnest today. Each act gets a set today and tomorrow, then groups are whittled down for Friday’s semifinals. After that, the big show is the Saturday night finals program. Here's hoping that Memphis is kind to Lansing’s blues scene!