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Monday, September 22, 2014

Detroit (IBC) Blues Challenge at Callahan's

A couple of great organizations!
I have meet so many interesting and talented people through my musical adventures in South Eastern Michigan that it really came as no surprise when this blog caught the attention of the promoter for the Detroit Blues Challenge at Callahan's.  As part of the International Blues Challenge (IBC) sponsored by the Blues Foundation, the Detroit Blues Society hosted a competition this past weekend pitting the finalists in the "Solo/Duo" and "Band" categories against each other for the honor of representing South East Michigan in Memphis this January.  I was honored to be invited to cover the event here, and got to see some incredibly talented musicians giving it their all.  As overheard several times at the event "I'm glad I'm not a judge today!"
A true gem in South East Michigan
In all, four Solo/Duo acts and six Bands competed in the event over the seven hour contest.  Quite the value for a mere $10 ticket price (especially when we learned that the entire $10 was being awarded to the winning acts to help defer some of their travel costs to Memphis)!  The bar was fairly full with a good mix of musicians, their friends and families, various blues society members (I got to share a table with a couple representatives of the Black Swamp Blues Society (Toledo) and found them--like all blues fans--to be friendly, engaging and passionate about live music).  One thing I loved was that almost everyone stayed for the entire event, supporting every musician equally.
Sweet Willie Tea & his Didly-Bo
Like bluegrass, folk and jazz, the definition of what constitutes blues music can vary widely, and lead to much debate.  Reading up on the guidelines for the event, I was pleased to see the it was evident that the Blues Foundation has really made efforts to embrace the spectrum of blues music around world.  Instead of dwelling on the interpretation of the blues, the rules focus rather on the individual musicianship (both vocal and instrumental) of the artist, as well as the the performance or "entertainment" value of the act.  The acts at the DBC definitely represented a broad spectrum of the genre, which made it a lot of fun to watch!
First up were the Solo/Duo acts.  Due to the mostly acoustic nature of the acts, it should be obvious that I have a rather soft spot in my heart for these artists.  Things began with an amazing One-Man-Band artist "Sweet Willie Tea".  Playing a variety of drum-kit parts (bass, snare, ride, crash) with his feet while singing and playing guitar/harmonica, Willie played in a variety of styles and included a variety of guitars including steel-bodied tri-cone resonator, wood-bodied dobro, a cigar-box guitar.  Perhaps the highlight of the performance was his closing number on the didley-bo.  Besides that classic slide sound, Willie was able to produce a variety of sound effects and even "voices" to accompany the song and the story that went with it.  A fantastic guitar player, smooth vocalist and captivating entertainer, Sweet Willie Tea was definitely the complete package.
Lauren Crane and her Koa Guitar
Next up was Singer/Songwriter Lauren Crane.  A captivating folk/jazz vocalist singing blues ballads with all her heart and soul.  She accompanied herself on a stunning Koa 000-style guitar.  Like many singer-songwriters, her playing tended to be mostly strum-based rhythms to support the song, rather than typical blues solos.  However, no one was there to hear her guitar.  Her incredible voice and inventive songwriting were clearly her strong suit.  If the contest had been held in a dimly-lit jazz club, late on a Saturday night, instead of noisy "battle of the bands" setting, Lauren would have blown the crowd away. 
Michigan Mick
Next was solo-guitarist, "Michigan" Mick.  Again, a mostly single dimensioned artist, his mix of blues-rock standards and high-speed originals played to his strong suit--lightning fast blues licks on the acoustic guitar.  Imagine if Stevie Ray Vaughn had never picked up a strat and had performed on a standard flat-top guitar and you'll get a good feel for his performance.  Micks voice was easy to listen to, but I found myself wanting to get to the next blistering solo just to see if he could top himself again!  One thing I notice was that Mick, of all the musicians there, seemed to be having a really good time.  His smile was infectious and the crowd was in to him big time.
The Amazing Alicia Venchuk
The last Solo artist was Alicia Venchuk from Ann Arbor.  A finger-style blues phenom, this college student was clearly the most talented musician of the night.  Playing both the round-neck dobro and an 000-guitar, Alicia tackled a wide range of both vocal and instrumental numbers featuring spot-on rhythm work and mind-blowing guitar breaks.  She closed with an instrumental number that featured percussive and scratching techniques on the dobro (ala' Tab Benoit) with the surprising addition of complicated rhythmic sounds produced by playing the sound-hole screens of her dobro. Overall, this young lady has the chops of a serious, seasoned musician.  I did notice that she seemed a bit shy about talking/interacting with the crowd between songs, preferring instead to launch right into the next incredible song in her repertoire. However, when the crowd would cheer during a song, she would perk right up, beaming an award-winning smile and mouthing a heart-felt "thank you" to the crowd.  Overall, I gave Alicia the nod on musicality, and Sweet Willie credit for his stage presence and called it a toss up.  The judges had a difficult decision, but picked the experienced showmanship of Sweet Willie over the pure talent of Alicia Venchuk.  Either choice would have been the right one.
Chris Canas and the Amazing Disappearing Guitar Strap
After and excellent burger (and better cup of coffee!) I was ready for the Band competition to begin, and it began with a bang! The Chris Canas band is a pure-Detroit blues machine boasting Chris' high-voltage guitar antics coupled with his soulful, almost R&B voice fronting a killer rhythm section and a fiery keboard.  Switching off with Chis on vocals was "Mrs. C" (claimed she was his Mother, but looked like an older sister!) with a soul-drenched voice that reminded me that Aretha, Gladys and Martha all came from Detroit too!  In the heat of one blistering solo, Chis let his guitar strap slip off and still managed to blow me away with his guitar work, all the while somehow holding onto the guitar during a series of wild guitar moves and pelvic gyrations!  The Chris Canas band not only put on a complete show, but spent the rest of the night mingling with the crowd.  They were truly demonstrating what it takes to be the "Ambassador of Detroit Blues".
Detroit Blues-rockers Drugstore Cowboys
Next up was the Drugstore Cowboys, a straight-ahead blues rock power trio.  I loved that they played almost entirely original material.  They have a unique sound...thing Ted Nugent doing Neil Young's "Rust Never Sleeps".    Digging through the hard-rock assault, their songs were surprisingly intelligent and poignant.  I particularly loved "My Wrench Don't Fit My Ford No More", a lament over cheap metric imports taking over the Motor City.  Probably a case of "great band / wrong setting", I really enjoyed the Drugstore Cowboys and would love to catch them at one of those classic Detroit rock clubs in the near future.  They are real-deal Detroit rockers!
Sandy Muligan gettin' her groove on....
How do you begin to explain Sandy Mulligan and the Gypsies?  I have a thing for all-girl bands, and even give them a lot of credit for their coordinating black-n-bling outfits, but it was their admission that they played mostly mellow and sometimes lusty blues that really sold me.  Nothing fancy here, a great singer-songwriter on acoustic guitar, backed by rhythm guitar, bass and drums.  At first I didn't care for the fairly simple structure of their songs, but then they hit their groove with a low-down cover of "Suzie Q" that left me somewhere between exhausted satisfaction and the need for a cigarette and a shower.  It was naughty....and a wee bit dirty...and amazing!  From there, the show continued to build with their infectious enthusiasm washing over the crowd until--too soon--it ended.  The Gypsies are a LOT of fun!
Real southern slide work from Elijah Craig
Elijah Craig--besides being a fairly good bourbon--is also a pretty good southern blues-rock outfit!  With a pair of lefties in the band, their mix of Allman-Brothers covers and original blues-based material featured not one, but TWO great guitarists combining slide licks on a Gibson SG and blues licks on a tele (I do love telecaster blues!).  Really good mix of soulful and more powerful rock-based lyrics here too.  Probably the best rhythm section of the night, with a quick, light-fingered drummer and a driving bass player who established a pocket it was impossible to fall out of.  Overall, a very good band with a great, danceable repertoire.

Next up was party-blues band Big Smooth & the Hellraisers.  I gave them very high marks right off the bat for realizing that they were in a competition, not another show.  So many bands now days dress in jeans and tee-shirts that it's sometimes hard to tell the band from the crowd.  Not so with this band and their quirky blend of aloha-chic and bowling-shirt couture wardrobe.  Somehow, it works.  Most of the bands started slow and built up during their sets.  Not so with Big Smooth, who kicked it off by saying "We're Big Smooth and the Hellraisers, and THIS is what WE bring to the party" before launching into a full-speed, hard-driving blues number that reached out and punched the crowd right in the face.  There was no doubt that these guys came to make a statement.  Backing up their bravado was a deceptively great band.
Big Smooth & the band raisin' some hell
One of the quickest and most tasteful drummers of the night coupled with some complex, sometimes funky riffs on the 5-string bass give the band all the energy they need to maintain their high-octane performance through the show.  The guitar work blended complex rhythm with blistering blues licks, shifting seamlessly between styles and sounds with ease.  And then there's Big Smooth.  A powerful vocalist and one of the best harp players I've heard in a long time, he somehow finds time to dance all over the state, never standing still for a moment.  Between an infectious smile, big-guy dance moves and a handful of Mardi-gras beads for the crowd, it is impossible not to have a good time at a Big Smooth show.  THAT'S what they bring to the party.
The BBSB (coolest rhythm section of the night)
The night ended with the Barrel Brothers Street Band.  This southern-style, piano-driven, boogie-woogie band played mostly cover songs, but in their own style.  Definitely and old-time, Tin-Pan-Alley feel to this band.  Great piano lick were accompanied by a great stand-up bass and a drummer playing a thrown together kit of snare, cowbell and cymbals somehow mounted on a Sampsonite suitcase (that also doubled as the kick drum).  A sax player rounded out the sound, contributing bluesy fills and jazzy solos.  Great semi-acoustic band!
In the end, it was six VERY different bands each offering something.  On my scorecard I had Chris Canas barely in the vocal/instrumental category and Big Smooth owning the stage presence.  Again, I don't know how the judges broke this toss-up, but they did choose the Chris Canas band to go to Memphis.  They are a great band, and will represent Detroit well!
Oh, the things you notice....
So there it is.  Another great weekend.  Another TEN great bands.  And more great music in South East Michigan.  There's nothing better than live local music, so go find some!


  1. As the former President of the DBS and former director of the Detroit Blues Challenge, I would like to say THATK YOU for showcasing this very special event. This was a great chronicle and a glimpse into the sheer talent and diversity that we have in Detroit Blues music!

    Steve Allen

  2. Sweet Willie Tea here. Thanks for the great review of all the artists who participated. You were paying close attention to everyone and we all are grateful to have some like you writing about our efforts! ~ WT

  3. Wonderful article! Thanks for the awesome Detroit Blues Challenge pictures and details! Can you tell me whether this Detroit Blues Challenge band performs in music NYC events? Actually one of my friends told me that last year they came here for their live performances.

  4. Thanks for the love. I'm not sure about the details of any band's schedule, but I did try to include a link to their website in the article (if one was available) so you can get more information.


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