Jan. 29 2016 10:07 AM

Lansing musicians fail to advance in blues competition

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.

FRIDAY, Jan. 29 — First, the unfortunate news: Neither the Twyla Birdsong Band nor Stan & Ben has advanced to the semi-finals of the International Blues Competition in Memphis.

In all, 36 solo/duo acts and 48 bands will play tonight, vying for spots in tomorrow night’s finals at the Orpheum Theatre. One Michigan act remains: The Chris Canas Band, representing the Detroit Blues Society, made the cut. I haven't seen the band yet, so I'll make a point of checking it out tonight.

I've seen so much outstanding music here, and yet only a tiny fraction of the acts is moving on in the competition. It’s hard to imagine that they’re better than some of the performers I’ve seen who won’t be playing over the weekend.

Twyla Birdsong
Photo by Scott Pohl

Birdsong put on another strong set at Club 152 on Beale Street last night, making enough of an impression to be asked to stick around for an extra set after the last competitor of the night (Vanessa Collier — more on her later) wrapped up her performance. The Michigan crew on hand to support the band was boosted by the addition of legendary singers Betty Baxter and Thornetta Davis.

Two performers I saw yesterday deserve their spots in the semi-finals. The biggest impression was made by J.L. Fulks, a hotshot guitarist from south Florida. His trio tore it up at Coyote Ugly. (If you read yesterday's report, he's the player on whom a friend had dropped a Stevie Ray Vaughn comparison. And oh my, can he play.) He banged out his last number on a three-string cigar box guitar that he had made himself. If the people behind the Lansing BluesFest want my advice on an act to bring to town, it's this guy and his band ... though I reserve the right to add others to that list over the weekend.

The aforementioned Vanessa Collier represents the Billtown Blues Association in north-central Pennsylvania. A dual-degree holder from the Berklee College of Music, Collier is a saxophone-slinging singer with A-list chops and a smoking band. I'll be disappointed if she and Fulks aren't in Saturday’s finals.

The competition is proceeding without Lansing’s entries, and frankly, that is surprising to me. Can there really be 36 solos or duos here that are better than Stan & Ben? Are there really 48 bands here that are better than Birdsong’s outfit? C’mon. Memphis, you have a lot to prove.