Jan. 13 2016 12:15 AM

Local musicians travel to compete in international blues competition

A caravan of local musicians will pack up their gear and head south later this month to see how their blues chops stack up against the rest of the world.
Singer Twyla Birdsong is taking her band, the Twyla Birdsong Band, to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis later this month.
Photo by Jesse Tanner

Two groups, the Twyla Birdsong Band and Stan & Ben, won the Capital Area Blues Society’s Blues Brawl event in May, earning them a trip to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. The competition runs from Jan. 26 through Jan. 30 and has two categories, one for bands and the other for solo/duo acts.

The five-day, multi-site competition takes over several clubs and venues in Memphis’ Beale Street Historic District. About 200 blues acts will take part in this year’s competition, coming from all over the U.S. and Canada, as well as Australia, Europe and Asia.

“It’s a concentrated dose of the blues,” said Denise Lynch, president of the Capital Area Blues Society.

The competition is hosted by Memphisbased nonprofit the Blues Foundation, of which the Capital Area Blues Society is a local affiliate. The foundation boasts over 200 affiliate groups worldwide, and each group is eligible to send a band and a solo/duo act to the International Blues Challenge. The foundation requires acts to win a regional competition, like the Blues Brawl, to be eligible.

Birdsong, 44, is making her third trip to the competition, but her first leading her own band.

“The first time, it was so intimidating because I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “The second time, I was a little more open to see what it really is. It’s a networking opportunity to talk to people from other countries and around the United States, to listen to their music and see what they’re doing.”

For Birdsong, those connections are invaluable.

“I still have friends that I met down there, and we collaborate on different things,” she said.

Lynch, who will attend the competition this year, has traveled to the competition four times to support Lansing-area blues artists. She expects a crew of over 30 Lansing-area blues fans to make the trip, including family members of the bands and Capital Area Blues Society members.

One such traveler is Paul Rathbun, executive vice president of Rathbun insurance.

Stan & Ben, a local blues duo formed earlier this year, earned a spot in this year's International Blues Challenge.
Courtesy Photo

While he doesn’t know Birdsong personally, he heard about the competition through a friend and decided to help sponsor the band’s trip to Memphis. He will be flying down with a crew of friends to attend the competition.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Memphis and I’ve always wanted to go to this competition,” he said.

Rathbun said he normally tries to go somewhere warm in January, and the competition seemed like a good excuse to get down to Memphis. He hopes to see Sun Records and Gibson Guitar’s Memphis factory, but he prefers to “travel loose” and keep his schedule open for interesting opportunities.

“We’re for sure going to see the Lansing bands compete,” he said. “That’s our only concrete plan.”

Lynch, who is in her first year serving as president of the Capital Area Blues Society, has been involved with the group for nearly a decade. She agrees that while there are lucrative prizes for the winners — including studio time, magazine features, guaranteed gigs and cash prizes — the real value in the competition is the chance to connect with like-minded musicians and blues fans.

“You meet so many people and see so many good bands. You become family,” she said. “You can go anywhere, and you’re immediately part of this group.”

Guitarist Stan Budzynski, one-half of duo Stan & Ben, is also making a return trip to the International Blues Challenge. Budzynski has competed in Memphis twice before, both times with his band, Stan Budzynski & 3rd Degree. Part of the competition’s appeal, he said, is the locale.

“It’s a mecca for blues and early rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “It’s steeped into the culture of the city.”

Budzynski’s duo partner, however, is competing in Memphis for the first time. Ben Hall, coordinator of East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival and music coordinator for the East Lansing Art Festival, is the duo’s singer and also plays harmonica and ukulele. He’s not planning on taking home any major prizes at this year’s event.

“I’m just looking forward to taking in the festival,” he said. “I’m not placing any expectations on it.”

While Budzynski, 63, and Hall, 41, have played music together for years, they formalized their duo just months before the Blues Brawl competition.

“It was something I had been thinking about for a while,” Hall said. “We had done some open mics together, and I’ve sat in with his band.”

The duo’s sound, Budzynski said, comes from the meshing of the two musicians’ styles. While Budzynski describes his influences as “old school” blues and classic rock, he admits that Hall — the younger of the two — is into even older music.

“His influences go back even further. It’s almost a Tin Pan Alley sound,” Budzynski said. “But he does rock and blues too. He’s a chameleon.”

Hall has been playing blues music for over 20 years, but his wide-ranging musical career includes stints as a professional opera singer and a line dancer. Going to a major blues competition is one more notch in his musical belt.

“I want to have as many musical experiences as possible,” Hall said. “I want to be well-rounded.”

While Hall is just hoping to soak up the scene in Memphis, Birdsong is looking to make some noise. Her band includes Lansing scene stalwarts like drummer Clarence “Boonie” Dottery and Steve “Frog” Forgey.

“This year I’m going with a great group of guys. I feel really good about our chances down there,” she said.

Capital Area Blues Society hosts a fundraiser for the groups Sunday at the Green Door. While the society kicks in some money to help with expenses, the musicians are tasked with raising most of the funds for the trip. Sunday’s event is the third fundraiser for the trip; the first two were organized by the musicians.

“We’ve had great attendance,” Hall said of the previous fundraisers. “People have really dug down deep.”

This is no surprise to Lynch, who is expecting a good turnout at Sunday’s event.

“I think Lansing has a phenomenal music community,” she said. “There’s a core group who are very supportive, the hardcore music lovers that come out to everything.”

Beale Street Bound

Fundraiser/send-off party 3-8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17 $10/youth 16 and under FREE with paying adult The Green Door 2005 E. Michigan Ave. (517) 482-6376, greendoorlive.com