Three Nights Of The 23Rd BBS Challenge

By A.J. Wachtel
November 2010

October 3 - Round One - Johnny D's, Somerville, MA

I’m standing in a packed house, listening to some of the best blues bands Boston currently has to offer. James Montgomery is onstage as emcee and I see many familiar faces, including legendary local blues DJ Holly Harris, and I think “thank heavens I'm NOT a judge.”

Kid Pinky opens up with a jump Chicago blues style and his harp playing ignites the crowd. He also plays piano on “That's My Girl”, which becomes my favorite tune.

Erin Harpe and The Delta Swingers follow. Any band that includes harpist Rosy Rosenblatt has to be first rate, and they are. Their Memphis Minnie/Charlie Patton influences are obviousas Erin sits on a chair upfront and sings in her strong and expressive voice while playing guitar. Erin makes “Virtual Booty Machine” (my favorite) shake the roof.

Up next is Barrett Anderson with some early Chicago/North Mississippi boogie blues. His great slide guitar version of Elmore James' “Dust My Broom” pushes the level up a notch.

Lois Greco has a sultry/sexy voice and her soulful, rocking blues band really knocks the crowd out. Her original “Help Me Find My Way” and a great slide version of Muddy's “Rollin And Tumblin” continues the up-tempo night.

In fact, it isn’t until the last band, Drivin’ Blind, goes on, that I hear a slow, B.B. King-inspired blues tune. They are a three piece combo and the guitarist is the focal point of the group. Their slow, Rory Gallagher-like song, “Someday After Awhile” closes the night with a swampy, Memphis blues tune and the crowd is going wild.

Three bands progress to the finals - Erin Harpe & The Delta Swingers, Drivin’ Blind, and Lois Greco. Thank heaven the blues is still alive in Boston.

October 10 - Round Two - Johnny D's, Somerville, MA

Round II of the semi-finals takes off exactly where the first night of the BBS challenge ended: blues lovers galore dancing up a storm as four of the best local blues bands vied for top honors for the evening and the chance to advance to the finals.

The Delta Generators played a short set of the music that set them apart from the competitors in the challenge two years ago. They play Hooker-style shuffles and lead singer/harpist Craig Rawding, whose power and range remind me of Roy Orbison, treats the crowd to his professional presence. Charlie O'Neal and his explosive slide guitar drives this band and they played a few tunes from their new CD “Hard River to Flow” as the audience twists and shouts.

Sit Down Baby, intrigues me from the start. They are a four-piece band with no bass, two guitars and a tuba played by Alex, complete with bow tie. How often do I get to hear a band with a tuba and a slide guitarist live and onstage? They certainly are the most interesting band of the night.

The Gil Correia Band is next and guitarist Gil seems heavily influenced by Freddie King. Their cover of King's “San Jose” is done really well. For a man who didn’t pick up the guitar until he was 42, Gil has Freddie down pat. Drummer Dave Baker's standout pounding pushes this three-piece band to high levels of guitar-driven blues and again, the audience shows its appreciation with wild applause.

Gracie Curran and the High Falutin Band’ “graces” the club with Etta James blues and soul inspired music. This is a good shuffle band and I really enjoyed her version of “All My Love” by Otis Rush, and her original tune “Don’t You Worry About Me.”

The last band up, Throwdown Blues Band, finishes the night with their high energy shuffles “Boogie Thang” and “Help Me” and then they slow it down and do a slow B.B. King inspired song. I am reminded of Gary Moore and Albert Collins when I hear this band.Their guitarist is great and drummer Skip Fischer and his spectacular drumming really satisfy the crowd as the night ends. This is the tightest band of the night and they go from song to song with professional rapidity - no time is left for the audience to unwind. Another great night of blues music.

And the winners are..........................Gracie Curran and the High Falutin’ Band and the Throwdown Blues Band.

October 17 - Finals for Bands and Solo/Duos - Johnny D's, Somerville, MA

All local blues lovers should really appreciate living in this area, especially those present at the finals of the Challenge; an illustrious evening showcasing the best of the many working bands in the area. Traditional and jump blues, acoustic and mixtures of soul, jazz and hard rock entertained the packed house as a normal Sunday night became a night for the ages.

New Hampshire native Max Sullivan opened the competition with his blues-based indie/rock sound that pushed the boundaries of a solo acoustic blues act. Having a 20 year-old start things off in a room full of older veterans and playing a solid set, illustrates the calibre of the talent present. “I Would Have Never Gone” was the song that really caught my ear and you could hear the Stones/Hooker/Wolf/ Waters influences in his music, with a touch of Jack White thrown in.

Next up, long-time local performers Satch Romano and Cindy Daley showed how experience and talent are the best combination in any challenge: his Little Walter, Magic Dick, Sonny Boy harp playing perfectly complemented Cindy's powerful Joplin-like vocals that sometimes took on a neat Laura Nyro touch too. “Love Me Like A Man,” an old Sippy Wallace tune, and their song now playing on radio, “Down So Low,” were stunning. At times, when Cindy's mic temporarily slipped away from her mouth, the vocals were just as strong and the foundation quaked at her emotional voice.

The final twosome, Willie and Babe, were very different and interesting. Both sang while Willie played Freddie King-inspired guitar and Babe tickled the autoharp. On their opening instrumental melody, her Yoko scat was both unusual and great. “Bad Thing,” an up-tempo blues song with good slide guitar, was also a cool cut.

And the winner is . . . Satch Romano and Cindy Daley!

After a brief intermission, Gracie Curran & The High Falutin’ Band started their set and the dance floor quickly filled with people animatedly moving to her soulful voice. This is a jump blues band and their tight performance showed that they are at the top of their game. The audience showed their appreciation by getting loud after every song as Gracie grinned at the applause.

The excitement escalated when The Lois Greco Band took the stage. Lois has a sultry voice and plays great guitar. One of the best songs of the night HAD to be her slide guitar version of Muddy's “Rollin and Tumblin.” Hearing a female sing these male-oriented lyrics was like a breath of fresh air in its gender-switch. I really liked when the band would get very soft for some of her vocals and then later in the song would get real loud to back her screaming guitar licks. Cool. With her brother on bass, “Help Me Find My Way,” a slow B.B.King-type original traditional blues composition, sparkled in its tightness.

Drivin’ Blind started with a rockabilly/blues instrumental, sort of like Billy Lee Riley fronting Stevie Ray's band. The second song was a slow, traditional blues and their third song was a jump blues where they segued from Alvin Lee's “I'm Going Home” to “At the Hop” to “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” and then back to the original slow blues for a real crowd pleaser. Three different songs, three different styles -- this was the most versatile of all the bands in their song selection.

Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers claim they play “Charles River Delta Blues” and their energetic set featuring Rosy Rosenblatt on harp was outstanding. The rhythm section in this group is great and moves each song from measure to measure to back up Erin's cool cadences. By this time, the crowd is in a great mood and you can just look around the room and see the happiness and enjoyment that everyone club is experiencing. Even challenge judges Carter Alan from WZLX and legendary blues siren Shirley Lewis seem caught up in the mood and are seen grinning contently.

When the last band, The ThrowDown Blues Band, with screaming guitarist Stan, great vocalist Eric, and powerful pounder Skip Fischer, unleashes its fury on the crowd and includes a torrid non-blues version of Hendrix's “Voodoo Child,” everyone is convinced that Boston has the best blues scene in the world.

And the winner is . . . Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers!!

Special thanks go to Carla, and Johnny D's staffers Joe Shea and Jeremy Newcomer.

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