What can be better than a day on the Portland Spirit, floating along the Willamette River, dancing and listening to the sounds of some of our region’s finest blues musicians? This October you’ll have the opportunity to experience three decks of gut-crunching, soul-lifting blues and also help raise funds to send the Cascade Blues Association’s Journey To Memphis winners to Tennessee to compete in the International Blues Challenge in late January/early February.

The Portland Blues Cruise was the brainchild of Rae Gordon while she was searching for a way to raise funds for her band’s trip to the IBC several years ago, and it was so popular and successful that it’s carried on now to its third year. Rae and her band, The Backseat Drivers, will once again be representing the CBA in Memphis, so they’ll be working the main stage on the middle deck of The Portland Spirit. Solo winner David Pinsky and Youth Showcase entry Timothy James will be featured on the top acoustic deck. Also helping out will be former CBA IBC artists Franco Paletta, Blues Music Award winner Lisa Mann, and other special guests who will be sure to add to the fun.

The Portland Spirit will be decked out in a Memphis theme, including food that can be purchased on board. This year’s Portland Blues Cruise will depart on Saturday, October 8, from Tom McCall Waterfront Park, 750 SW Front Avenue, at 3:00 pm. Boarding gates will open at 2:30 pm. Tickets are now on sale through Tickettomato.com for $25.00. Admission will be $30.00 on site, but best to buy in advance as this event will more than likely sell out.

(Please Note: For those folks who are planning on attending the Oregon Music Hall of Fame show that same night, you’ll have time to do both! The Portland Spirit will return and unload at 5:00 pm, giving ample time to head off to the Aladdin Theatre).

Journey To Memphis All-Stars

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!)

On an overcast, humid afternoon at the Waterfront Blues Festival, the Cascade Blues Association held its 17th annual Journey To Memphis finals.

In early June, eighteen bands began the competition to select the Cascade Blues Association’s representative for the International Blues Challenge next January in Memphis. The Rose Room hosted two hard-fought evenings of music where CBA judges determined the four finalists to perform during the Waterfront Festival.

One thing was certain, all four finalists were prepared to amaze our judges and delivered some of the very best performances ever seen in our competition. The Thunder Brothers started things out with exactly that — a thunderous set that set the pace for the day’s entire festival. Then the Beacon Street Titans brought a swinging show that had the dance floor moving. Rae Gordon & The Backseat Drivers then mesmerized the crowd with her soaring voice and muscular big band. Closing the competition was the Ben Rice Band showcasing his guitar prowess and vocals with a knife-sharp performance. This was an unbelievable combination of acts, and each band had the talent and musical ability to represent CBA in Memphis and make us proud.

Given this incredible collection of talented musicians to evaluate, the judges definitely had the toughest job of the day. Scoring each act separately on blues content, vocals, instrumentation, originality, and stage presence had to be tough as all four acts brought the goods. Huge kudos to our trio of judges, entertainment attorneys Bart Day and Peter Vaughan Shaver and Reno Blues Society board member Sherrie Clay, for taking on this role. Many thanks!

Rae Gordon and the Backseat Drivers - photo by Cherie RobbinsWhen the dust cleared and all acts were finished, the scores came back hailing Rae Gordon & The Backseat Drivers as the winners of the day. This will be Rae’s second time representing the CBA in Memphis and her third trip overall. Her last trip found her reaching the semi-finals, let’s hope to see her go even further if not all the way to the top this time!

Joining Rae in Memphis will be this year’s solo/duo winner David Pinsky, making his second appearance for the CBA, having represented the organization with Phil Newton two years ago. Also, young guitarist Timothy James will head back and participate in the Youth Showcase. We’d love to see a large grouping of CBA members and local blues fans head back to the International Blues Challenge to cheer our performers on. It’s well worth the experience if you can to see the future of the blues today.

Good luck to Rae Gordon & The Backseat Drivers and David Pinsky!

2023 Journey to Memphis Finalists

July 4 at the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival — you know it’s going to be packed to the extreme. People coming for the great musical line-up and the fireworks staking their claim of space in the bowl right from the gate’s opening in the morning. But once you have found your ground for the day, make it a point to head directly to the far north end of the festival, to the Front Porch Stage, to witness one of the greatest and most fun happenings of the festival every year, the Cascade Blues Association’s competition, Journey To Memphis finals. Four bands will be competing to claim the right to travel to Memphis Tennessee this coming January to take part in the world-renown International Blues Challenge, which can lead to international recognition and prizes including spots at many high-profile festivals and venues.

The 2016 Journey To Memphis began in early June when eighteen acts performed before a set of judges at The Rose Room over two nights. And those acts fielded one of the strongest line-ups in the history of this event. They were: Beacon Street Titans, Ben Rice Band, CD Woodbury Band, David Brothers, David Pinsky, Eric Sugar Larsen Group, Holfar Blue, Joanne Broh Band, JT Wise Band,  Julie Amici, Rae Gordon & The Backseat Drivers, Randy Morrison’s Party Bus, Rogue Rage Duo, The England Trio, The Thunder Brothers, Tim Connor, Timothy James, and William “Froggy” Hyland. Each played twenty minutes with the top two highest scores from each night moving on to the finals at the Waterfront Blues Festival.

Photo Jun 05, 3 31 16 PMThe event mimics the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in its structure, with each act being scored in five categories: blues content, talent – vocals, talent – instrumentation, originality, and stage presence. Our judges for the first round were three adept individuals with a wealth in backgrounds of music education, theory, promotion, teaching and performance: Darlene Solomon-Rogers (aka Blacque Butterfly), John Jaqua, and Herb Kanne.

Beacon Street Titans

Beacon Street Titans

Starting at 11:30 am on July 4 on the Front Porch Stage, the four finalists will perform twenty-five minute sets before three new judges. Each act has its own distinct style and all are powerful and exciting. They are: Beacon Street Titans, Ben Rice Band, Rae Gordon & The Backseat Drivers, and The Thunder Brothers.

Ben Rice Band

Ben Rice

Congratulations to David Pinsky, who will represent the Cascade Blues Association in Memphis as our solo/duo entry. Each affiliated blues society of The Blues Foundation is allowed to send a band, a solo/duo and a youth act to the International Blues Challenge. As our highest scoring solo/duo act over the two nights at The Rose Room, David has won the right to participate in Tennessee. Timothy James as the only under-age act of the competition has been invited to take part in the Youth Showcase in Memphis.

Rae Gordon

Rae Gordon

This will be the Cascade Blues Association’s eighteenth year been sending acts to the International Blues Challenge for eighteen years and holding the Journey To Memphis competition for seventeen. A few of the acts that we have sent include Junkyard Jane, Robbie Laws, Bill Rhoades & The Party Kings featuring Michael Osborn, Franco Paletta & The Stingers, Ty Curtis Band, multi-Blues Music Award nominee Karen Lovely, and two –time Blues Music Award winner Lisa Mann.

Thunder Brothers

Thunder Brothers


Set times for this year’s Journey To Memphis Finals are as follows:

11:30 – The Thunder Brothers

12:10 – Beacon Street Titans

12:50 – Rae Gordon & The Backseat Drivers

1:30  –  Ben Rice Band

Have you ever wondered just what kind of attention participating in the International Blues Challenge can draw? Just take a look at this year’s Blues Music Awards. Four acts who have participated in the IBC combined to win six of the awards handed out this year: Lisa Mann, Cedric Burnside, Mr Sipp, and the biggest winner of the year, Victor Wainwright, who took home the BB King Entertainer of the Year and Best Band honors. Aside from those four, these former IBC acts also received nominations: Fiona Boyes, Karen Lovely, Brandon Santini, Jarekus Singleton, Sugaray Rayford, and Jason Ricci. All received international attention through their appearances at the IBC.

But, to perform at the IBC, all acts are required to go through regional competitions held by affiliated members of The Blues Foundation, such as the Cascade Blues Association. So, for the seventeenth year, the CBA will be holding the Journey to Memphis competition to select our representatives in Memphis next January.

The applications are in, the dates confirmed, and the sets have been scheduled for the opening nights of this year’s Journey to Memphis. This is going to be one of the largest fields ever to participate in our competition. Nineteen acts will appear in twenty minute sets, ten each night, on Friday, June 3 and Saturday, June 4. The Rose Room, 8102 NE Killingsworth, will host the event, and admission each night is $10.00, which is the base for our prizes for the overall winning acts. Four acts, the two highest scoring from each night, will move on to the Waterfront Blues Festival on Monday, July 4, on the Front Porch Stage.

This year’s entries are:

Friday, June 3:
7:00 – Joanne Broh Band
7:30 – William “Froggy” Hyland
8:00 – Julie Amici
8:30 – CD Woodbury Band
9:00 – David Brothers
9:30 – The England Trio
10:00 – Beacon Street Titans
10:30 – Tim O’Connor
11:00 – JT Wise Band
11:30 – Ben Rice Band

Saturday, June 4:
7:30 – Franco Paletta Band
8:00 – Timothy James
8:30 – The Thunder Brothers
9 :00 – Rogue Rage Duo
9:30 – Randy Morrison’s Party Bus
10:00 – Eric “Sugar” Larsen Group
10:30 – David Pinsky
11:00 – Holfar Blue
11:30 – Rae Gordon & The Backseat Drivers

Please note: schedule times are subject to change. We have had acts drop out prior to the event in the past, which can cause rearrangement of set times and dates. We will keep you informed of any changes on our Facebook page.