Journey to Memphis Finals

Portland, OR
July 4, 2017

The Cascade Blues Association Journey to Memphis final competition was held on the final day of this year’s Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival. The finals started early, so it meant an early trip to the waterfront. This year the festival was five days, so you really had to pace yourself. This was my second time watching the competition and I knew to get in the coffee line early; there was only one coffee seller at the festival. The competition was held at the Oregonian Front Porch stage, which had a dance floor.

The Cascade Blues Association helps send three acts to Memphis to participate in the International Blues Challenge in January: one youth act, one solo/duo act and one band. This year the youth act and highest scoring solo/duo acts were selected during the first round of competition held earlier. The final four bands competed for the band spot. A panel of music industry professionals judges the bands. Scores are based on blues content, vocals, instrument talent, originality and stage presence.  The acts are timed and each band only gets 25 minutes.  Going over the allotted time lowers the band’s score.

Here are the four bands:

Randy Morrison Band: two guitars, bass and drums.

Randy brought great original lyrics. He got out attention when he told us about how he “got bit by my dog”. Laura, the bass player, did traditional style blues about leading a horse to water and she really brought the attitude to deliver the message. The band then brought out a jump blues “You Deserve Better” with a two-part harmony guitar solo. To me this was Randy telling his own blues man story, and he really sold it. The set ended with the upbeat “Blues Don’t Bother Me”, which brought out the dancers.

Gabriel Cox Band: two guitars, dobro, keys, harp, percussion, bass, drums

The band opened with an acapella number. Gabriel did his tribute to the wolf with “I’m No Wolf but I’m Howlin”. He nailed the Chicago walk. Gabriel brought a riser to stand on and boost his stage presence. All of the songs were originals. The “Downtown Blues” featured a shaker percussion part with multiple members playing shakers on stage.  Gabriel sang us one of his stories about “Being Late to My Favorite Show”. This rocker brought out the dancers. The true highlight of this set was a duet with Gabriel and Miranda the dobro player. Miranda has a fantastic voice. Gabriel had an inspirational message to the kids in the audience and shared advice he was given as a child: always believe in yourself. The band closed the set with another very believable “I’m Gone, Now Get Out” which featured a harp solo.

Sister Mercy: Guitar, keys, bass, drums, vocalist

Sister Mercy competed here and won two years ago, and represented the Cascade Blues  Association at the International Blues Challenge in 2016. They were semi-finalists but did not win a top spot. The band has changed a bit, but still features vocalist April Brown. The set opened with “Death Came Knockin” in gospel style. April was truly in her element, and the crowd loved it. The band then went to a slow blues with plenty of catfish. April told us the back story for the next song about the Doris Payne, a famous jewel thief. This was great use of a contemporary topic, which is a cornerstone of blues writing. If you didn’t know, the Frankie and Johnnie blues standard was based on a newspaper story. The breakdown in this song featured an extended jazz guitar solo. The band then went into a song about being alone. The band ended the set with a cover of “Tell Mama” with some great high kick dancing and a drum solo.

Lightning Kings- Horn section, keys, guitar, bass, two vocalists

I have to say that the Kings were brave to bring a ten-piece band to play a 25 minute set. They pulled it off beautifully. The group opened with an instrumental, the only one in the competition with an energetic beat.  The “Pirate of the Willamette” slowed the set down and got greasy. “Love You Like the Fourth of July” featured a rocking guitar solo. The horn section was very strong through the whole set, the harmonies were great and the horns traded licks on the solos. The band’s set featured a couple of slow songs, back to back. Right or wrong, this usually empties the dance floor. The set ended with a dance number that brought the dancers back. All in all it was a great set, especially the horns.

After the final act played, the judges tallied the scores. You could see the musicians trying to calculate their own scores. Though the judges were pretty quick, about 5-10 minutes, it must have seemed like an eternity.

Once again Sister Mercy carried the day! As we say in East Memphis: Mazel Tov! (congratulations). The band will be off to Memphis in January representing the Cascade Blues Association for a second try at the win. If you love festivals, do check out the International Blues Challenge. It is a wonderful opportunity to see hundreds of acts. It is not crowded and reasonably priced. And of course, it is in Memphis. If you can’t make it to Memphis, please watch for CBA events to help the band, youth act and solo/duo act raise funds for the trip.

Where ever the highway takes you, I hope to see you at one of the events very soon.

Until next time, keep it all blue!

Jeff Levine

Posted in Journey to Memphis