Journey To Memphis Competition

From the listener’s seat

The Waterfront Blues Festival is my favorite Portland event. Where else can you see a whole year of blues entertainment with 15,000 of your closest friends for a $10 ticket?

We all love the headliners, but I always go to hear the up-and-coming artists. And what better place to catch them than our own Journey to Memphis competition? After my last visit to the International Blues competition, I was hooked. Memphis is my ancestral home, and a visit gives me a chance to see the family and cheer for our Portland band. For 2016, I am committed. How committed?  I told my mom I was coming, and that’s committed. So here is my report of the competition,  from the plastic chairs.

Independence Day, Portland, OR

Oregonian Front Porch Stage,

Early in the Morning I Can’t Get Right

It’s a cool, cloudy June-uary morning in Portland. To make it in from the ‘burbs for the 11:30 AM show, you have to hustle. There is only one coffee stand at the festival, and the line was about a mile long.  Nothing says Memphis like Coke for breakfast.

Here’s the rundown: four bands each get a twenty-five minute set. Three judges score on blues content, originality, stage presence, instrumental work, and vocals. One winning band goes to Memphis. Penalty points if you go over your twenty-five minutes, and that can cost you the prize.

Downhome Blues

Band #1 The Thunder Brothers.

Members: 4 piece band with 2 guitars, bass, drums

Guitars: Blackie Strat, 2 Teles, Les Paul (What can I say, I’m a guitar geek)

Several members have been prior competitors. The brothers opened with a shuffle, and got a great SRV vibe . Loved the line “if you’re gonna hurt me, you better hurt me good”. I counted four guitar switches in one set. That was brave. If I tried that with my band they would probably (to quote an old Memphis colloquialism) “peench my head off.”  The set included a scat solo, and a Bo Diddley style number with pounding toms that had us early risers drumming along. They finished with another shuffle with a single note line reminiscent of “Cold Shot.” Portland served up its own cold shot with a cloudy 60-degree morning.  Coke for breakfast doesn’t play in Portland. The coffee line parted enough to get Americano at the break, while the next band set up.

Band #2: Beacon Street Titans

Members: 5 piece band with guitar, piano, upright bass, sax, drums

Guitar: Gold strat

This band had the sharpest dressed front man. They came out swinging hard, with a jump blues featuring a harmonica solo. By the first solo, the swing dancers hit the dance floor. The piano sound came in late kenahora (Yiddish for keep the evil eye away), be careful about telling stories of past sound problems. The “Bad Habit” song featured a great T-Bone style solo. The “Please Pick Up The Phone” song reminds me of my house…would somebody please get that? I loved the harp solos, and thought the group could have used more. One thing was bugging me. Portland has a Beacon Street? Who knew?

Band #3: Rae Gordon and the Back Street Drivers

Members: 7 piece band, guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, horn section

Guitar: Guild Manhattan, Guild Starfire

The folks at the table with me were friends of the band, they helped me id the Guilds.  My Sister Mercy friends were a few tables over and dropped by so say hi. This band had the best vocals so far, and the only female vocalist of the contest. With more piano problems we had to wait for the Hammond. When it came in it was worth the wait. The horn section got the dancers up. The slide solo on the Manhattan brought out the missing catfish, like a good slide always does. Next up, a slow song, and the dancers stuck it out and waltzed on.  Three guitar switches in the set. Nervy, but you have to be nervy to back-seat drive in Portland. Rae really sold it with the “Mississippi Mud” number. We could all feel it. After all Oregon is the Mississippi of the West. And anyone from Mississippi in the Portland Blues scene has automatic yichis (distinguished lineage).

Band #4: Ben Rice Band

Members: 5 piece band, guitar, bass, drum, sax, piano

Guitar: Custom Washboard Tele

The washboard guitar looked like a Telecaster that had been treated like a Louisiana crawfish – pinch the head off, pull the guts out, throw the body away. This band had the best slide solo of the day. Ben was awesome trading fours with the horns. The set included what must be a traditional “Ida Mae.” (A top name on the popular baby blues name list.) One of my favorite Portland players was on the keys, Mac Potts, who we all used to watch on the kids stage. Once his solo finally came in, it gave me the chills. Or maybe it was the June-uary wind. Mac sang backing vocals on “Last Night I Got Loaded.” Careful Mac, that song is based on a true story. It was my favorite cover of the contest. One of the Cajun washboard guys from the next set hopped on stage to join in. Not to last, no jamming in the competition.  I thought Ben was the best front man of the day, and the outro vamp band introduction showed the best showmanship. This was my pick to win.

You Upsets Me Baby

The judges took five minutes to tally the results for the last band, as they had done after every set for the previous three. For the bands, the wait must have seen slower than the Interstate Bridge on a hot Friday. My tablemates picked the Backseat Drivers, with an admitted bias. And they were right. Rae Gordon and her band carried the day. Rae, I’ll see you in Memphis! And the rest of you Portland blues fans, get out there and hear some music. And if you can swing it, come down to Memphis to cheer on the band.

Until next time,

Jazzy Jeff Levine
‘Burbs of Portland
Oregon, USA

(Note: Jeff had submitted this story after the August deadline, but we felt it was worth publishing now. Thanks Jeff!)

Posted in Journey to Memphis