Backstage Pass - David Hughes
Thursday, December 14, 2017
“There goes my hero. He’s ordinary.” – Foo Fighters
If you’ve read my column much at all then you will know, dear readers, that my parents had a major influence over my addiction to music. Music was being played on the radio or stereo all the time around the house. My mom would clean the house on the weekends with Elvis or Bill Haley & the Comets blaring from the giant television/stereo console in the living room. Dad would wake us up for school nearly every morning with Hank Williams, Sr., or Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys.
It was always there, somewhere, either right up front or drifting over the background of our life.
Neither of my parents played music. In fact, hardly anyone in my family plays an instrument or sings. It may have been something we aspired to but it was never something we followed through on. Thought about it a lot. But, in a small town in rural Oklahoma, music was a side bar to work and sports. That didn’t stop any of us from listening to and enjoying it.
In fact, I have a ridiculous number of vinyl albums in my music collection. Nevermind the CDs sitting on the shelves. Or the cassette tapes that are boxed up in storage at the moment. I have well over 2,000 titles in vinyl. Small in comparison to some but quite a few for a poor boy from Eastern Oklahoma. My dad had vinyl on the shelves at home. And he listened to them a lot. Bob Wills, Patsy Cline, Hank Snow, Jim Reeves, Floyd Cramer. Mom turned us on to rock ‘n’ roll with Elvis, Fats Domino, the Del Vikings and Carl Perkins. He was a little bit country. She was a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.
My love of vinyl, something I still collect, comes straight from my pops. I used to go through his albums and play the records while studying the liner notes intently, wondering who these people were that were listed on the back of the album and how they could make such amazing sounds jump out of the record player. I could tell you all the players, who wrote the songs and I knew something about the artist featured on the cover. It was, and still is fascinating to me to read the liner notes and learn about the people involved in the making of the music.
Now, I know you young folks, you digital darlings, out there are going ‘Just google the information’ or ‘Download the music’ or ‘What the fuck is a vinyl album?’. That last one is for another column one day. Maybe. Using the interweb would be the easiest thing to do to find music and info, and, admittedly, I do. However, there is nothing better than holding an album cover, especially one that has a record sleeve with pictures, words and stories, and poring over it while the record plays on the turntable, every piece of lint and every scratch audible through the low-fi speakers on the console stereo. It’s a warm feeling to hear music that way and to learn about it that way. It makes one stop, listen and absorb the experience of music.
I used to sneak into my dad’s home office and ‘borrow’ his albums to listen to on my stereo. I would sit in the floor, my back to the wall, headphones plugged in, and listen. I’d hear every scratch, every breath on the recording, every instrument. I could close my eyes and imagine I was right there, playing along with Hank, Sr., or Willie Nelson or Patsy Cline or Patti Page. I could open my eyes and see their pictures and know their stories. Then, I’d have to sneak the album back in to dad’s office and place it back in the stack before he was any the wiser. The thing was, he knew all along I was doing it. He didn’t mind.
I now have all my dad’s old records sitting with my collection. He got rid of them many years back as his interest in buying and keeping music faded. It never faded in me. If anything, it was intensified. I still hunt for vinyl and am like a kid in a candy store if I locate a vintage record shop. And I blame the old man for that. Actually, I don’t blame him at all. I thank him for that. For that love of music and for so much more.
Charles Evans Hughes, Jr., left this world early in the morning, Friday, November 3, 2017. He left behind a legacy that many aspire to but few ever accomplish. He was a husband, son, father, brother, teacher and friend. He did not live extravagantly but he had more than he needed. His greatest pleasure came in enjoying time with his family.
Dad leaves behind a legacy of teaching, thirty-five years in the classroom. When he retired he was teaching the grandchildren of his first students. To think of the many lives he touched over those years, in and out of the classroom is astonishing. He told me two things when I told him I wanted to be a teacher. “If you don’t know the answer, it’s ok. Say you don’t know and then go find out.” “Treat everyone the same, no matter the color of their skin or where they may come from.” I’ve carried those two things with me throughout my education career. They have served me well and I have often passed them on to others.
My dad also left a legacy that spurs my love of music. Every time I pull a vinyl album from its sleeve to listen to, I’ll feel his hand on my shoulder and see his wide, gap-toothed grin. When Bob Wills or Hank, Sr., comes on I’ll hear a hand clap and an ‘Ahhh Haaaa!’ from somewhere beyond the ether. I’ll take that.
This old world is big, hard and cold most of the time. But there is always hope and there is always love to see us through. Hold your people close and tell ’em you love them every chance you get.
You never know when that last time will truly be the last time.
Backstage Pass - David Hughes
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
The Spa City Blues Society has been hosting and producing the Hot Springs Blues Festival for 21 years. This past Labor Day the SCBS brought in a stellar line-up that exemplified the versatility of blues music. Anthony Gomes, Nikki Hill and John Nemeth provided a spectrum of blues tinged music, leading one of the best groups of headliners to appear at the festival. The undercard was not too shabby either…Akeem Kemp, Nandha Blues, The Stella Vees, Hoodoo Blues Revue, the John Calvin Brewer Band, Spa City Youngbloods, Jelly Brown & Kathy Kidd, Al Hill…some very good talent performed.
According to current SCBS President, David Hughes, “It was by far some of the best music we’ve put on our festival stage. Every act was on top of their game. It was a great event. Unfortunately, hardly anyone showed up to hear them.”
The SCBS finished the event just under $14,000 in the red, something that hasn’t happened since Hurricane Ike landed on the Hot Springs Blues Festival several years ago.
“The weather was perfect. Everything was in place for an outstanding event,” Hughes continued. “It was like throwing a party and no one showed up.”
The event is held on the Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend and has been for over fifteen years. It expanded from a one day event to a two day event, falling on Friday and Saturday for several years. It was moved to a three day event to encompass Sunday before going back to a two day event that kept the Saturday-Sunday format.
“Sunday is usually a bigger day than Saturday. This year, there was hardly anyone here for Sunday’s show. In fact, there was not much foot traffic in town Sunday evening.”
A combination of low attendee turnout and fewer sponsors contributing to support the event led to the deficit for this year’s festival. In efforts to recoup the losses, the SCBS is working on several fundraising activities over the next two months. Information on all the events is located at www.spacityblues.org.
There are two take-out dinners scheduled, one in October and one in November. Orders are being taken for a pulled pork dinner with sides for Saturday, October 14. Orders are also being taken for spaghetti dinners with salad and garlic bread on Sunday, November 12.
Dinners are $10 each and may be picked up at The Big Chill, 910 Higdon Ferry, in Hot Springs. Dinners may be picked at between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm or between 4:00 pm and 6:00 pm on each date. Tickets may be purchased from the Big Chill, any SCBS board member, Blues In The Schools member or online at www.spacityblues.org. Dinners are pre-pay only. There will be no extra dinners available on the day of pick up.
The SCBS will hold a yard sale on Saturday, October 14, in the parking lot of The Big Chill from 8:00 am until 1:00 pm. The SCBS is accepting donations from members and supporters for the yard sale. Items may be dropped off at The Big Chill or contact the SCBS at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are donation buttons on the SCBS website with different levels of contributions. The levels are $25, $50, $75, $100, $150 and Other Amount. For every donation of $50 or more, members will be entered into a drawing for two possible prizes: a weekend stay in Eureka Springs and $50 gift certificate to The Big Chill. Contributions will be ongoing, however, the deadline for contributions that are eligible for the drawings is October 31.
The SCBS will offering two Backyard BBQ package that include hamburgers, hot dogs and the fixin’s for up to 30 people along with a performance by the Spa City Youngbloods. These are limited to two packages with a total cost of $1500 per package.
In addition to these fundraisers, the SCBS will reinstate a cover charge for the bi-weekly Hump Night Blues Jam held at The Big Chill. The cover charge will return to the original $2 per person amount effective October 11.
“These are serious times for the SCBS,” Hughes continued. “We are literally looking at the end of the SCBS if we can’t raise this money. That means the Hump Night Blues Jam goes away. The Hot Springs Crawfish & Gumbo and Craft Beer Festivals go away. The blues festival goes away. Blues In The Schools goes away. The SCBS does a lot in the community. All that falls away if we can’t get this taken care. We’re reaching out to our members and the music community to help out.”
Backstage Pass- David Hughes
Tuesday, October 10, 2017Once more the music world is impacted by and through the loss of its performers. Just recently, Arkansas lost one of its own in Cedell Davis. On a larger scale, Tom Petty was taken from us. Death is inevitable. We all know that. At least we should. Death touches us all at some point. Whether it’s a loved one or one of our heroes beyond our family and friends.
I met Cedell Davis the first time over a dozen years ago, maybe more. At that time, the Spa City Blues Society was hosting the weekly Hump Night Blues Jam at Schapiro’s, now the Gangster Museum. We were enjoying the jam one Wednesday evening when a man came through the door pushing an older, black man in a wheelchair. No one knew for sure who it was at first. Once someone figured it out, his name slowly washed through the crowd, a pretty good one for that evening. “It’s Cedell Davis.” That was about the most exciting thing that had happened at that little jam in a while.
Davis sat in with the band for several songs. As I recall, he didn’t sing very much that night. But, he did play some slide guitar with a butter knife. We got to meet him that evening and to visit for a short while. The most amazing thing about that time came a few months later while we were at the Sunflower Gospel & Blues Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I saw Davis in his wheelchair near the bottom of some steps, taking in the music. He was alone at the moment and I went over to say hello. I introduced myself and told him I’d met just recently in Hot Springs. There was a sparkle of recognition in his eyes as we chatted. I don’t know if he really remembered me or not. If he didn’t, he certainly made me feel like he did.
Davis played the Hot Springs Blues Festival a year ago and did an outstanding job. He was backed by Brethren: Greg & Zakk Binns, John Stephens and Tim Green. I’m extremely happy that we had Davis on the festival stage. He was a treat and a treasure.
I’d like to state here, too, that I have a great deal of respect for Greg Binns and the rest of the guys in Brethren. They took Davis on tour, more than once, and they helped resurrect the career of a man who needed to be heard. They brought happiness and respect to him. I watched, on several occasions, as the members of this band took care of and protected Cedell Davis. I know that Greg Binns made many runs to Kentucky Fried Chicken because that was what the man wanted to eat. For that, and much more, I want to say thank you for the things all of you did to make Cedell Davis’ life something I believe he enjoyed to the very end. Good on all of you. Rest in peace, Mr. Davis. Up, up and away…
The first time I heard Tom Petty was when the song Breakdown hit the airwaves. I won’t tell you how old I was at that time but it was a long, long time ago, kids. “It’s alright if you love me. It’s alright if you don’t…” I still love that song! And many others Petty recorded through the years. I was listening to Petty in high school. And again in college. And again. And again. Petty’s music provided the soundtrack to several decades.
I regret that I never got to see Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers live. The timing was never quite right to make the nearest show. I could kick myself several times over for not making the time to go see and hear a musician that, looking back, added music to my collection and is one of those guys I don’t change the radio when his song comes on.
Hope to see you on the other side, TP. You ARE someone famous.
We’ve lost a lot of great performers over 2017. I’ve no doubt we’ll lose more before the year ends. It’s a natural thing, death. God’s divine plan, circle of life, all that other bullshit. Death is not elegant. It is not a scene from the movies, replete with angels and ariels and trumpets calling you home. It’s ugly and sometimes painful. It’s anticlimactic and often surreal. One second we are here, the next we are not.
Make time to take time to do the things you want to do in this life. Go spend time with your family. Spoil your grandkids and kids. See the places you never thought you could. Eat the lobster. Drink the expensive wine. Every now and then, say ‘fuck it’ and take a day off work to do nothing but enjoy the treasures and surprises that day brings you. Because, folks, when it’s all said and done, the life we lived is the only thing that will matter. Did we live a good life? A full life? Did we teach our kids and grandkids to give back, to be part of things that are bigger than themselves? Did we help others? Did we extend a hand to someone who needed it? Did we make a dent in the universe, even a little one?
It’s never too late, folks. Never. And for heaven’s sake…please, go listen to the music. Every chance you get. I promise you won’t regret that.
See ya backstage. Peace, y’all.
Backstage Pass - David Hughes
Wednesday, June 14, 2017The Spa City Blues Society has announced the lineup for the 21st annual Hot Springs Blues Festival, held Labor Day weekend in Hill Wheatley Plaza. The 2017 event will take place on Saturday and Sunday, September 2-3. The annual music festival regularly brings blues lovers from across the country to enjoy one of the Spa City’s premier events.
The Hot Springs Blues Festival is sponsored in part by Visit Hot Springs and The Hotel Hot Springs.
Headlining the festival will be Leo ‘Bud’ Welch, John Nemeth, Nikki Hill and Anthony Gomes. Welch and
Nemeth will close the evening on Saturday while Hill and Gomes will round out the event Sunday evening.
Leo ‘Bud’ Welch, Sr., was born in Sabougla, Mississippi, in 1932. Welch picked up a guitar for the first time in 1945. He and a cousin would sneak off to play the guitar while the actual owner of the guitar, Welch’s older cousin R.C. Welch, was away working. As he became confident in his ability to play guitar, Welch was caught red handed by the owner of the guitar, playing the forbidden to be touched instrument. His older cousin was so impressed with his playing that he gave Welch free reign to continue playing the guitar. By 1947 at age 15, Welch could play well enough to perform publicly and garnered the blessing of many elder guitar players. He was offered an audition by BB King but could not afford the trip to Memphis. Welch played the blues continuously until 1975 when he converted to playing mostly gospel music with the Sabougla Voices, consisting of his sister and a sister-in-law. He also played with the Skuna Valley Male Chorus.
Welch earned his living by carrying a chain saw up and down the hills and hollows of north Mississippi, logging for 35 years. He does not believe that blues is the devil’s music but a way of expressing the highs and lows of one’s life through song. Welch has played his guitar for close family and friends for over 65 years and remained under the radar, undetected by the vast majority of blues aficionados, until April 19, 2013, after being secretly recorded performing at the 50th birthday of his manager. Since that time Leo ‘Bud’ Welch has taken the music world by storm. His debut album, Sabougla Voices, was released in 2014, two months before his 82nd birthday. Welch’s sophomore album, I Don’t Prefer No Blues, was released in 2015, two days after his 83rd birthday.
As a Boise, Idaho teenager in the early ‘90s, John Németh was drawn to the hard-edged hip hop sounds and rock bands of the day. But when a friend exposed him to Buddy Guy and Junior Wells’s classic “Hoodoo Man Blues,” he was hooked. John played harp and sang in local bands, often opening the show for nationally touring blues acts. John soon caught the ear of established blues musicians, and before long he was releasing his own CDs, The Jack of Harps (2002) and Come And Get It (2004), featuring Junior Watson, and performing in Junior Watson’s band. He relocated to San Francisco in 2004, where he wound up doing a two-year stint with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, filling in for the ailing Sam Myers.
Németh immersed himself in the deep musical waters of the Bay area, absorbing more of the soul and funk grooves of what he calls “the early East Bay Grease sound” of San Francisco and Oakland bands. His reputation continued to grow, and he soon signed a recording contract with Blind Pig Records. His national debut for that label, Magic Touch (2007), produced by Anson Funderburgh and featuring Junior Watson on guitar, received an ecstatic response from fans and the media, and he was hailed as the new voice of the Blues. Living Blues Magazine enthused, “Magic Touch gives hope that the blues will survive.” In 2008, Németh was recruited by Elvin Bishop to do some performances and contribute four vocal tracks to his Grammy-nominated album The Blues Rolls On.
Németh released two more albums on the Blind Pig label, Love Me Tonight (2009), Name The Day! (2010), earning critical raves and strong sales, both hitting #6 on the Billboard Top Blues Album Charts, and beginning his long string of Blues Music Award nominations, numbering fourteen at last count. Nemeth also won two Blues Blast Music Awards, Best New Artist Debut Recording and Sean Costello Rising Star Award, voted on by nearly 11,000 blues fans. Nemeth followed up with two independently released live albums, Blues Live and Soul Live in 2012.
In 2013 Nemeth relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, where he quickly became a key player in the city’s rich musical scene. He teamed up with producer Scott Bomar and his classic Memphis Soul band, the Bo-Keys, to create an album of revisited Soul classics, Memphis Grease (2014), on the Blue Corn label, which debuted at #4 on the Billboard Blues Chart. He won the 2014 Blues Music Award in the Soul Blues Male Artist category, and Memphis Grease took the prize for Soul Blues Album in 2015.
Already established among the very top ranks of blues musicians and modern soul singers Nemeth decided to break the mold with his new record, Feelin’ Freaky. Németh fearlessly crushes all barriers of style and genre with an album of original songs that defies all the usual pigeonholes. Drawing from his strong influences in blues and R&B, as well as contemporary sounds in hip hop and rock & roll, Nemeth creates music that is personal as well as universal, and owes its origin to no one but John Németh. His songs are groove and melody-driven, laced with thoughtful lyrics and nuanced humor, and cover themes from social issues of gun violence and class values to the pure hedonistic joy of dancing, sexuality and marijuana. He creates his songs from melodies and phrases he draws from the sounds of life, from early-morning Memphis songbirds to the din of the city. For this album John brought his new songs to his great touring band, the Blue Dreamers – Danny Banks on drums, Matthew Wilson on bass and guitar, and Johnny Rhodes on guitar – so they could hone the groove and finish building the album as a group. Under the simpatico guidance of Grammy-nominated producer Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), Feelin’ Freaky emerges as a modern personal masterpiece.
Those who have seen Carolina girl Nikki Hill sing her ass off agree. This isn’t just another newcomer on the scene. Nikki Hill is a ‘whiplash’ moment.
Hill and her band have been touring extensively following the independent 2015 release Heavy Hearts Hard Fists and debut album Here’s Nikki Hill, released in 2013. With a no-filter energy, and explosive live show, Hill and company deliver a sound that will make you believe in rock ‘n’ roll again! Her unique voice, with raw rock and soul dynamics mixed with the strength, passion, and honesty of blues shouters of the past, steers the driving guitar and a tight rhythm section to create a breath of fresh air with their fast forward approach to American roots music.
Nikki Hill’s self-titled, independently released EP in June of 2012 created a heavy and sudden international underground buzz that the band has traveled with across America and overseas to Europe and Australia. Those four tunes penned by Hill, combined with memorable live performances, have drawn a wide range of people from every avenue and musical taste to their shows. Her enthusiasm for music is simply contagious. One club advertisement will call Hill “The Southern Fireball”, “the New Soul Sensation”, “amazing R&B Shouter”, and even “the new Queen of Rock n’ Roll”.
Anthony Gomes has been creating virtuosic, burning blues since his recorded debut in 1998. 12 releases and numerous awards and ecstatic accolades later, Gomes shows no signs of slowing down with his latest musical offering being his most successful to date. The aptly-named, riff-laden Electric Field Holler has received highly acclaimed recognition, reaching #1 on both Roots Music Report's Blues Rock Chart and ReverbNation’s Global Blues Chart as well as earning several nominations for Blues Rock Album of the Year.
The Toronto singer/songwriter/guitarist is propelling blues rock into the contemporary music culture with his unapologetic approach to reinventing the genre in relevant and fresh ways. “The blues is old, but not tired” said Anthony, adding: “It speaks as truthfully today, and for this generation, as it ever has.” Blues Music Magazine writes, "the formidable guitar chops and authentic singing place him in the forefront of modern blues." This, along with his high-energy shows and dynamic stage presence, make him one of the top draws on the Rock/Blues circuit today. And the facts speak for themselves. Gomes has performed in 17 countries and has shared the stage with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Robert Plant, Joe Bonamassa, Heart, Jonny Lang, Sammy Hagar, 38 Special, Robert Cray and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Gomes’ instinctive mastery of his craft is matched by his knowledge of and dedication to blues history. He is an award winning blues history scholar, earning the University of Toronto’s C.P. Stacey Prize for the highest overall academic grade point average by a history student. Anthony also completed his master’s degree thesis on the racial and cultural evolution of blues music, graduating with high distinction. In 2014, his thesis was published and nominated for the Best Blues Book of the Year by Blues 411.
Born in Toronto, Canada, to a Portuguese father and a French-Canadian mother, Gomes began playing guitar in his early teens and was drawn to the blues sounds of B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. He relocated to Chicago in the late '90s to learn from the blues masters. During his brief stint as a sideman for Magic Slim and the Teardrops, Gomes put together his own group and won the first annual Buddy Guy’s Legends “Best Unsigned Blues Band” competition in 1998. Later that year, Gomes released his debut CD, Blues in Technicolor, which introduced him as a guitar-slinger loaded with impressive firepower.
Believing that music can inspire the human spirit, Gomes founded the Music Is the Medicine Foundation in 2010. This non-profit organization is dedicated to changing the lives of others through the healing power of music. Through private donations and winning sizable grants from State Farm Insurance and CVS Pharmacy, the foundation has funded songwriting scholarships, offered music education programs, and donated musical instruments to those in need.
In addition to the headliners, the festival will include an array of local and regional acts over the two days. Set to play this year’s blues festival are the Spa City Blues Society’s representatives to the annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Competing in the solo/duo category are Hot Springs based Steve ‘Jelly’ Brown on guitar and vocals and Kathy Kidd on bass and vocals. Hoodoo Blues Revue from the Little Rock area represented the SCBS in the band category and will bring their soulful blues to the stage.
The SCBS’s Blues In The Schools program sponsors a performance band, The Spa City Youngbloods. The Youngbloods have represented the SCBS in the annual Youth Showcase in Memphis during the IBC for several years and have earned their spot on the festival stage through hard work and dedication.
The John Calvin Brewer Band will see the festival stage again this year. The JCB are the house band for the SCBS’s Hump Night Blues Jam, held every other Wednesday at The Big Chill. The band will bring their style of blues rock to blue fans over the weekend.
The John Weeks Band from the Denver, Colorado, area will make their first visit to Hot Springs for the festival. Weeks and company bring some fine original blues music to the lineup.
Maxi Arrigo and Nandha Blues will bring an international flair to this year’s event. Hailing from northern Italy, Arrigo and crew will be touring the United States in late summer and have added this festival to their itinerary.
IBC Solo/Duo winner Al Hill from Nashville will be making his first appearance to the Hot Springs Blues Festival. Hill, representing the Nashville Blues Society, will play piano and guitar while sharing his original music.
This year’s festival will have a different twist. The SCBS will hold its local IBC contest on the Thursday and Friday evenings (August 31 and September 1) at The Big Chill. The Solo/Duo competition will be held on Thursday while the Bands will face off on Friday. Each competition is limited to six acts. Winning acts will receive a paid spot on the 2017 festival stage, sponsorship to the 2018 International Blues Challenge and a spot on the 2018 festival stage. Winners in each category will play the festival stage on Saturday afternoon.
The week will kick off with a special Hump Night Blues Jam on Wednesday, August 30, at The Big Chill. During the festival there will be music related workshops and Blues In The School activities.
The Spa City Blues Society will be accepting vendor application in late June for food and non-food vendors. For individuals or businesses who are interested, there are sponsorship opportunities available. The Spa City Blues Society is a 501c3 non-profit.
For detailed information or questions go to www.spacityblues.org.
Blues Music Awards in Memphis,TN ---David Hughes
Monday, April 10, 2017You guys know I’m a blues fan. If you don’t, you should, especially if you read this column enough. I love all kinds of music but blues is where my heart is. So, let’s talk about the blues.
Coming up in May is the annual Blues Music Awards in Memphis, TN. The BMA’s are produced by the Blues Foundation, based in Memphis. The foundation has done a great deal of work to promote and preserve the original American art form. The folks who work there have put together a number of great programs for blues societies and blues lovers from around the world. Their efforts include the International Blues Challenge, the HART Fund, Blues In The Schools, Generation Blues, the Blues Hall of Fame, and, of course, the Blues Music Awards. This year’s Hall of Fame induction and BMA’s will be held May 10 – 11. (For information go to www.blues.org)
I’ve had the pleasure of being able to work the BMA’s for the past several years. I work each year as part of the volunteer detail during the Blues Hall of Fame inductions and as an artist handler during the BMA’s. Being an artist handler essentially means I’m finding my assigned award nominee(s) and making sure they get backstage on time to play their featured spot during the event. The team of handlers, usually six to eight of us, are assigned several performers each. While these folks are assigned to us individually, we work as a team to find the artists, keep eyes on them and get them squared away backstage on time. I’ll point out that these are musicians so it’s often like herding cats to make things happen.
It’s not a tough job, being an artist handler. In fact, it’s quite rewarding. I get to meet people I might not otherwise have the chance to meet. I get to see friends from around the country. And I get to be part of something that’s pretty cool in and of itself. The job is six to seven hours of constant movement, being on my feet almost the entire time, monitoring the musicians and keeping up with the schedule. At the end of the evening all I want to do is put my feet up.
In spite of the physical trials, it’s still a great experience. I have met people who I’ve become friends with and remain so today. I’ve made contacts that have allowed me to network around the country and to have a familiar face in most cities that I travel through. Working this event has provided me once in a lifetime opportunities and experiences. Following are some of my favorite experiences over the years at the BMA’s.
I was backstage keeping an eye on one of my artists when I looked up. Standing just a few feet away from were Bonnie Raitt and Buddy Guy. Raitt was presenting Guy with his Lifetime Achievement Award. I stepped over and introduced myself to both, stuttering out something ‘great to meet you’ or ‘love your music’. I don’t know what I said exactly as I was in shock to be standing there shaking hands with these two. Both were very cordial and welcoming. It was pretty cool to meet two pieces of living music history.
One year I was responsible for Duke Robillard and his band. I had them all backstage and was with them waiting for them to be called up for their performance. I struck up a conversation with the trumpet player, Al Basille. I had never heard of him before that night. Since then, I found out what a superb horn player he is. He has been nominated for numerous awards for his work. Plus, he’s just a nice guy. We still stay in touch.
There was special segment during the BMA’s a few years back where they did a tribute to the Chicago blues players. There were several of them standing in a group backstage, awaiting their time on stage. John Primer, Bob Stroger and several others were in the group and then there was me, sort of hanging around, listening to them tell their stories. To a man, they all talked about where to find ‘the best pot and the best pussy’. It was like listening to a bunch of junior high boys talk and giggle.
I had the opportunity to introduce Annika Chambers at the cocktail pre-party not long ago at this event. Chambers is one of the up and coming female blues singers. When I introduce someone I like to know a little about them so she and I chatted for a bit before her performance. We were able to make a connection and chatted throughout the evening at different times. Later in the evening as I was walking through the crowd looking for one of my charges, I saw her standing near a table in the back of the room. She was being flirted with by one of the performers and it was very obvious she was uncomfortable. We made eye contact and I could tell she was uncomfortable with the situation. So, I walked over, put my arm around her, gave her a kiss on the cheek and said something to the effect of ‘Hey, babe. Are you about ready to head out? I’ll be done in a just a minute.’ Of course, she played along and lover boy went away. I think he was a little more than shocked at seeing an old, bald white guy walking off with a young, beautiful black woman.
One of the most frustrating years for me at the BMA’s was my first year. Two things happened that year. I was assigned to emcee the cocktail party stage, the pre-dinner event that happens the hour before the actual BMA dinner and presentations. Michael Burks was my first introduction that night and he was not happy. I don’t know what he was upset about but he was not getting on the stage to play. Now, I knew Burks a little bit from other gigs around Arkansas and had worked with him on gigs in Hot Springs. I was catching grief on my radio because the show hadn’t started. I was pleading with him when the producer finally came up and said whatever he said to get Burks on stage. We got him onstage and he played a fine set that evening. Later, Burks came over and apologized to me for the trouble. He was such a sweet guy when you got right down to it. But, man was he ever a handful when he got pissed!
The same year I was assigned to Jason Ricci. At that time Ricci was a loose cannon with drug and alcohol issues and he was fighting the mainstream blues crowd because he was flamboyant and openly gay in a community that is almost as bad as country music when it comes to sexual flavor. I personally like Ricci when introduced myself to him. The issue came later when I tried to find him. He was the last performer of the evening, it was almost time to play and he was nowhere to be found. I still don’t know where he was but he showed up about ten minutes before he was supposed to play, rolled backstage like nothing was wrong and did his set.
There are lots of other stories to go with these, from meeting some very nice people to hanging out with old friends. It’s a lot of work but, to me, it’s worth every second to be around the music.
If you’ve never been to the BMA’s, I suggest you add it to your music bucket list. When you buy your ticket for the dinner you are guaranteed to be sitting with at least one of the musicians who are nominated for an award. I promise, it’s a good time. I’ll be back there again this year, hustling artists backstage and running through the crowd checking on things. Maybe I’ll see you backstage. Peace y’all.
Backstage Pass by David Hughes
Tuesday, February 21, 2017So, I’m fresh back from Memphis, Tennessee, and another International Blues Challenge. I’ve been going so long now I can’t tell you how many years I’ve worked it. I know I started going in 2004 when Lee Langdon and Scott ‘Rooster’ Meeks won the solo/duo competition, playing the finals that year in the Pig on Beale. I’ve made the pilgrimage every January since and I’ve been emceeing a venue for a lot of those trips.
I’ve got friends who think I’m nuts for spending my own money to go volunteer almost 50 hours in four days. For helping hang banners and pass out programs. For bringing a team who gets it and wants to go. Eating late and drinking cheap beer. But, you know what? I’m not the only one. There are people who come from across town to across the country to be a part of the cogs and cranks that is the International Blues Challenge. I see people there every year that have become part of the extended ‘blues family’. I’ve come to cherish the many relationships that have been forged through time spent on and around Beale Street, in the offices of the Blues Foundation, and with the multitude of people whose paths have run across mine.
I’ve been a venue coordinator at the IBC for close to a decade if not longer. What does that mean? Well, basically, I’m the emcee and captain of our little time that includes a time keeper, a judge’s assistant, a venue assistant and the venue coordinator. For the most part, once the competition begins I’m the emcee for the evening, getting to introduce the bands that are assigned to the venue we’re in.
Speaking of the venue, I’ve played coordinator in two different venues though under several names. My first couple of years our team was in the old Daisy Theater. From there, we landed in the Continental Bar, formerly the Memphis Police Museum. Since that first year as the Continental it has been Flynn’s and most recently, this year to be exact, it is King Jerry Lawler’s Hall of Fame Bar and Grill. Swear to God.
It’s a pretty cool venue, actually. The change-over to Lawler’s brightened the joint up quite a bit, with wrestling memorabilia covering everything. I especially like the wall size photo of Lawler and Andy Kaufman appearing on the David Letterman show just to side and back of the stage. Hard to miss. However, the coolest thing about the venue is the sound guy, Chris Gales. I’ve been working with Chris for several years and the dude is a consummate professional. In addition to his sound duties he also performs daily at Lawler’s. You should check him out when you’re in Memphis.
Back to the original story, emceeing during the IBC has afforded me the opportunity to meet a lot of great people, from the musicians to the people who support them. I’ve been lucky enough to make friends and maintain relationships for years now because of working during the IBC. When I travel with work or on my own I inevitably run into someone I’ve met or heard during this event. True story. Hell, I’m planning a trip to the Tel Aviv Blues Festival because of one of the bands that was in our venue this year. And the music. The music is some of the finest music you will hear anywhere. Blues fan or not, there is so much good, quality music on display during the IBC that it will drive the true fan insane. So, when my friends ask me why I do it, well, I do it for the music.
Don’t believe me? Let me give you a little taste of my drug of choice. I go to Memphis twice a year, the IBC and the Blues Music Awards. When I go, I do so with the express intent to purchase music at Memphis Music. I’ve been buying music from Dr. Malcolm, Bluesologist and curator of Memphis Music, for over 20 years. This trip was no different. Between budgeted purchases, unplanned purchases and music passed on from some of the acts in the competition, I arrived home with a grand total of 51 cd’s. It’s a problem but I’m not ready to get over it just yet.
So, I enjoy working the IBC for lots of reasons. From the relationships to the music. But, the music is always the thing. It’s like watching that epic sports play in person or catching that special moment in a photo when the subject is lost in the moment. The performances can inspire.
Some of my favorites from this year’s IBC included King Bee, Blues Chronicles, the John Spear Band, the Tim Budig Band and William Marsala. Don’t take me wrong, with almost no exceptions, every band in our venue was top notch. These are the ones I thought delivered. King Bee, from Birmingham, Alabama, ended up making it to the finals with a heavy, muddy harp, deep vocals and crunchy guitar work. Blues Chronicles were all older guys and did a cool rendition of John the Revelator and laid some Tom Waits on the crowd. The John Spear Band and William Marsala were as close to contemporary blues as you could get and still remain blues. Tim Budig brought a mix of rock laced guitars with original blues tunes.
Friday evening’s semi-finals brought six new bands into the venue. It was here I got to meet the guys from the SOBO Blues Band from Israel. Assaf Ganzman (bass, vocals), Daniel Kriman (guitar, harp) and Eden Bahar (drums) were full of energy and mischief. Kriman, originally from Russisa, is the one who prompted me to think about the Tel Aviv Blues Festival. A well-known and popular band in Israel, SOBO’s highlight of the competition was a song they had written for the late blues songstress Kandye Kane. A couple of others in the semi-final round I enjoyed were Roadhouse Redeemed, The Bush League and Sistahs Too.
Being a venue coordinator does not afford one much opportunity to see other acts. However, against better judgement, once the bands got started on their set in my venue I would make a quick run to another venue to catch one of our Arkansas acts play. I got to catch Hoodoo Blues Revue both of their quarter final nights. They did a great job and had the crowd with them both times I saw them. Goes to show the level of talent in this year’s competition. Big Papa Binns also put on a good set the night I caught him.
I was impressed with all the acts in the finals, band and solo/duo. Most years I can listen and watch and wonder how some of the act made the finals. In fact, this year was probably the first year that I thought all the acts were deserving of their appearance in the finals. Meaning, there were no acts left behind that were as good or better than the acts in the finals. In my humble opinion.
For me, the highlights of the finals were watching Akeem Kemp and his band perform on the Orpheum Stage. Raw and pure blues played with poise and style. I heard two different people say that they thought Kemp had played the best blues guitar in the finals. He may not have officially won that honor but he certainly got noticed.
It was also nice to see former IBC winner Randy McQuay make the finals again. McQuay writes and plays from the heart and was deserving of a second IBC title though he did not place.
An inspired performance by Dawn Tyler Watson and her band landed them top honors. I have to say, I’m excited to get to bring then to Hot Springs over Labor Day weekend for the Hot Springs Blues Festival. Watson was three months out of open heart surgery when she accepted the first place plaque.
All in all, the 2017 International Blues Challenges was one of the most talented fields in some time. In my estimation, of the ten bands in King Jerry’s the first two nights, nine of them could have moved on. Quite the field, I’m telling you.
Each night of the competition there are a different set of judges. I’ve had some assholes over the years and I’ve had some pretty cool ones. This year was a year for the cool people in the world of IBC judgedom. Of note, I had Alvon Johnson, one of the Coasters and a multi-award winning artist. Richard Ranta, the founder and CEO of High Water Records, who has worked the Grammy Awards television show since 1983. There was David Fleischman who worked years at Atlantic and MCA records before running his own independent promotion company. Don Wilcock who wrote Buddy Guy’s authorized biography Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues. And Tim Curry who broke MTV’s blues barrier with profiles of BB King and John Lee Hooker. Some very cool people with lots of cool stories.
And then there’s our team. For a long time now, it’s been my lovely bride, Sherree Hughes; son Aaron Hulin; and good friend Leo Priest that have been representing the Spa City Blues Society as volunteers. This year we added Paula Ford and John Peak to the volunteer ranks. One of the most excellent things about working this event is having this team. When we’ve finished for the evening we always have time for a bite to eat and maybe a drink. A little last bit of the evening commaraderie before the night overtakes us. It’s a privilege to work with them and lead them.
So, why do I go? The people, the music, the food. All of it. But, mainly for the music. The music makes the sore feet, aching back and squinty eyes not so sore or aching or squinty. It makes the friendships solidify a little more. It makes the heart not quite so heavy.
If I can leave you with one piece of advice…add the IBC to your musical bucket list. I promise you, it’s worth every penny to go check it out.
While you’re checking things out join me on Monday evenings from 5 to 7 pm for my show The Mojo Box. It’s on KUHS 97.9 FM, Hot Springs community radio. You can stream the show at www.kuhsradio.org , too. I play a lot of traditional blues tunes but I also play blues music you’re only gonna hear on my show. Things like the bands from the IBC along with other blues acts that you just don’t get a taste of in other places. Give it a listen and lay your burdens down for a little while.
You guys remember to be good to each other. We’re all in this thing together.
See ya backstage.