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.
THURSDAY, Jan. 28 — The competition phase of the International Blues Challenge in Memphis began in earnest yesterday, and Lansing’s entries accounted well for themselves. But let's start with some background on the competition, shall we?
First, there’s no way you're going to see all the musical acts competing. The solo and duo acts are spread out over eight locations, each with up to 12 acts per night. And the bands? They're in 12 other locations with about 12 acts per night. Each act plays a set Wednesday and another on Thursday.
The sets run like clockwork, with each performer getting time for four or five songs. The acts are penalized if they run long; I didn't see a single act go past their allotted time. Judging criteria includes blues content, vocals, instrumental talent and stage presence, as well as extra points for performing original works.
The first place band wins a $3,000 cash prize, four days at Ardent Studios in Memphis and four days of recording or mixing time at Showplace Studios, as well as Blues Breaker status on the BluesMobile radio show with Elwood Blues. There are also bookings at blues festivals around the country. Second and third place bands also get prize money and bookings.
For the winning solo/duo act, the prize is $2,500 along with some studio time, radio exposure and future bookings.
Judges also name best guitarist in a band and in a solo/duo act, best harmonica player, and best self-produced CD. Friday's schedule includes a youth showcase, so I'm hoping to see some talented young players.
My itinerary for day one of competition was built around seeing Lansing’s Stan & Ben and the Twyla Birdsong Band, and that meant some moving around. Luckily, they don't play at the same time either day.
My Wednesday evening started out at B.B. King’s Blues Club for a few bands over a plate of ribs. Alabama-based musician Jamell Richardson stood out as the guitar-slinger of the night.
Then it was on to the third floor of Club 152 on Beale Street for several solo/duo acts. Stan & Ben (Budzynski and Hall, respectively) performed a well received set. Each took turns on lead vocals, and Hall’s versatility, playing both harp and ukulele, stood out.
Coyote Ugly hosted a series of trios. The atmosphere here was more electric. A friend stuck around longer than I did to see the J.L. Fulks Band out of south Florida. Meeting up later, he made the comparison to (gulp) Stevie Ray Vaughn. Checking him out for myself tonight would mean missing Stan & Ben’s set tonight, but I might just have to do that.
The Twyla Birdsong Band closed the show on the first floor of Club 152. Of the four smokin’ bands I saw there, I don't think it's Lansing homerism to say Birdsong and her mates brought down the house. The inimitable singer was resplendent in a white, Elvis-like ensemble designed and made for her by bandmate Angel Dottery. The sound mix seemed to ratchet up during their set, nearing the pain threshold at the set’s close. Wow.
In case you're wondering if Lansing's entries are truly worthy of this international competition, rest assured that they have, in my opinion, at least, matched or exceeded the others here. Still, making Friday’s semifinals would be a huge accomplishment. I’m glad it isn't my job to pick winners and losers!