It began with a general call out from the Blues Society of WNY for volunteers, and next thing I knew I found myself thrust full throttle into my first musical journalistic assignment since my days at the Buffalo Rock Review in 2005. I was live and in person at the 2013 Memphis Bound Competition, notebook and pen ready in hand. As an added bonus, I invited my good friend and photographer, Mike Mietlicki, of Studio 112 Photography, to accompany me to capture this auspicious event. The minute I walked in, I noted that it felt like one big familiar family gathering, with a love of the blues as the common ground that brought them all together.
This year’s competition took place at The Cove on Transit Rd. in Depew, N.Y., featuring six of WNY’s best blues bands in 2 categories: Solo/Duo and Band. Spearheaded for the fifth year by Blues Society board member and chairperson, Kim Alessi, this competition has WNY blues bands vying for the opportunity to go on to compete in the Blues Foundation’s 30th International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee.
The competition was judged by 4 persons of distinction in the blues community: Sharon Schneider, former Associate Editor of Blues Beat Magazine; Cecil Davis, Blues Society of WNY Membership Chairman; Melody Harrison, former Blues Society of WNY board member; and Dave Walker, former two-term Blues Society of WNY President.
The contestants were given 25 minutes to show their stuff and were judged on blues content, vocals, talent, stage presence/audience response, and originality. Judging was totally objective in that it was tabulated on the computer and judges did not know the final outcome until announced. Results were revealed the same day. Solo/Duo acts were alternated with Group acts. Winners of the competition are awarded travel reimbursement monies upon their return from Memphis. According to reigning Blue Society President, Jack McArdle, first prize at the 30th International Blues Challenge in Memphis is a recording contract and second prize is merchandise and gear.
So, first up to bat was Greg Zark, a man who has established himself as staple in the blues community as one of the best blues drummers in town. Today, however, he demonstrated his prowess as a solo slide blues guitarist and singer. His style was reminiscent of the old story telling, roots blues that matched his raspy vocals. Covering tunes from the likes of King Biscuit and McKinley Morganfield (that’s Muddy Waters to y’all) he was an intense performer whose inflection and tone hits down home. You were able to feel the lyrics as if he lived those blues. It was a perfect blend of song choice, performance, and personality.
The second performance was by the Tommy Z Band, which included Tommy Z on guitar and lead vocals; Jerry Livingston on bass; and Damone Jackson on drums. The incomparable Livingston, coupled with Jackson provided a hard-hitting, tight rhythm section for Tommy’s all original set. They played several tunes off his new CD, including “I Got You Back”, which he has also gotten to perform overseas for the troops. With a more modern twist on the story telling tradition of the blues, he sang about winning the lottery and getting dumped, and of course, romance, all while producing searing guitar solos that were chock full of tasty notes. But it was instrumental piece called “Tommy’s Blues” that stood out for me. Blistering guitar, and stage presence, created in unison with a high octane performance, this set had everyone sitting up to take notice.
Next up was a man who is no stranger to anyone who frequents the blues music scene, Jon Rose. A consummate bass player, who holds a blues groove like nobody’s bidness (that’s how we say it, yessir), Jon performed in a rhythm section duo with the legendary Phil Moody on drums. As a bass player, myself, I appreciated this gutsy move. I am also admittedly envious of any bass player who can sing and play simultaneously. Jon’s walking bass lines were warm and velvety with a smooth upright quality, and his vocals reminded me of Albert King. He sang several tunes, “Later Than You Think”, “She’s No Lady, She’s My Wife”, and “They Put My Last Clean Shirt On My Brother Bill” with his upbeat personality and humor shining through each song. I really enjoyed his jazzy version of The Beatles’ “Things We Said Today”. He captivated the audience and truly seemed to be enjoying himself.
Though the next group, Steve Grills and the Roadmasters, are blues staples out of Rochester, N.Y., they were new to me and I eagerly awaited their performance. The Roadmasters, (named after Earl Hooker’s band) are Steve Grills on guitar and vocals, Larry Miller on bass, Tristan Greene on drums, and Ian Sherman on keys/organ. Covering Chicago style blues, it was clear that this band had done their homework. The rhythm section was solid, the keys were flavorful, and the guitar playing was just right and not overdone. The vocals were also done well. This unassuming group of musicians played a short, but tight set. It did take them a minute to get in their groove, but once they were there, they grew on me. If I walked away with anything from this performance, however, it was my impression that what they sold in musicianship, they lacked in audience connection and stage presence. The band displayed no personality and didn’t look like they were having a good time. Developing more in this area will take this band to the next level.
The final duo act of the evening was Bare Bones featuring David Miller of Dive House Union notoriety on guitar and vocals and his son, Josh Miller, on hand percussion. As you may know Dive House Union was last year’s representative in Memphis. In this duo, Miller performed all originals in a slow hand, Clapton-esque guitar style, with punchy vocals that seem to combine soul and country flavors. The vocals and lyrical content were definitely the focal points of Miller’s work. He continued the story telling tradition with songs like “Memphis Spell” and “Steam Train”, but delivered it with debonair charm and humility.
Finally, the last group was Lynne Fredericks and Morningwood, which she claims she could not take credit for naming. The question posed to the audience was, could this band rise to the occasion? (I believe there’s a “punny” in there somewhere). The only female performer of the evening, Lynne was joined on stage by her bandmates: Blues Society President, Jack McArdle on guitar, Daniel Sturner on keys, Barry Arbogast on sax, Greg Zark on drums, and Dave Herr (also of Dive House Union) on bass. Lynne’s Big Mama Thorton, sexy, bawdy style was a definite crowd pleaser. Her commanding vocals and undeniable stage presence allowed her personality to just radiate. The band was a tight unit that has obviously developed a cohesive, yet laid back chemistry. The sax tore it up, the keys were smokin’, and the band was jivin’. The group backup vocals were an added bonus. Her original song “I Come First”, written by both herself and Zark, gave her theatrical license to use audience participation. The set ended with a slow grinder and she received a standing ovation.
Then it was time to announce the results. The air was full of anticipation. Master of Ceremonies and Blues Society of WNY newsletter editor, Karl Bauer, informed everyone that the competition was tight and the numbers were very close. In the Solo/Duo category, first place went to Bare Bones featuring David Miller. Second place went to Greg Zark. In the band category, first place went to the Tommy Z Band and second place went to Lynne Fredericks and Morningwood. It was noted that second place was not to be taken lightly. If the first place contenders are unable to go to Memphis to represent, then the second place competitors go in their place.
In true blues fashion, of course, there was a jam afterwards, where, in the end, it’s not about the competition, but the camaraderie amongst the musicians and appreciators present to witness a room full of blues talent.