June 6, 2010
Last week I had a choice. I could keep working away at trying to complete my to-do list, full of exciting things like fixing my clothes washer so that I could have clean clothes to wear, or I could say the heck with it and do something fun. Something fun was definitely on the schedule, so the choice was easy. The Granite State Blues Society was working up to the final competition for this year's Blues Challenge, and the big show would be held at Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry. Ever the procrastinator, by the time I made my decision I was afraid the tickets might have sold out. Going online to buy tickets, I had some concerns so I called the phone number listed on the website. No answer, but several hours later I got a call back from Scott himself at Tupelo. How many venues do you know where the owner personally returns your call? This is a guy who knows how to treat his customers. By then I had navigated the web page and had my tickets. I threw on my last clean shirt and we were good to go.
I had already gotten a taste of what was to come, as I had judged the semi-finals night a week earlier at the Village Trestle in Goffstown. Having seen and heard the quality of the musicians who made it that far, it was clear to me that there would be some great music to be heard in Londonderry.
My wife and I headed down a bit early so that we could catch a bite to eat, and by the time we rolled into Tupelo's parking lot they were directing people to little spots of grass on the edge of the pavement. That was a good sign; it meant there was going to be a solid turnout. We shuffled into the line that was slowly making its way into the club. It was no surprise to see Barry and Carol Smith at the door, handing out Blues Society fliers and bumper stickers. Barry has seen his baby, formerly the New Boston Blues Association grow into the full fledged Granite State Blues Society that is an affiliate of the international organization called The Blues Foundation. He is rightly proud of the growth that has occurred.
Many of the tables were reserved or already occupied and we were lucky to find a couple of stools near the food service bar. We settled in and could sense the anticipation as the musicians milled about and tried to act nonchalant. How can you not be a little nervous? You don't know how the judges will like your material, you don't know how the audience will fire your spirit, heck you don't even know in what order you will appear. I guess that's the sort of combination that is going to demand an "A" Game of each competitor.
The categories were broken down to solo/duo acts and bands. The solo/duo acts went first and the order was drawn out of a jar. First to go on was Johnny Bishop and Charlie Hilbert. Johnny has been entertaining folks in the Upper Valley now for a couple of years, having moved up to NH from Virginia. He's a master harp player and vocalist and he likes to keep his blues traditional. Accompanying him was Charlie on guitar. They set everything off with a tight set of Chicago and Delta style numbers that got the crowd right in the mood. The combination of slide guitar work and Johnny's two harps in different octaves made for some powerful stuff.
Next on stage came Max Sullivan, a young guy from the seacoast area with a great set of pipes and stage presence to burn. He accompanied himself on guitar and sang with an attitude of experience that belied his years. Included in his set was his original tune "Julia" which can be heard on his MySpace page. His energy level was undeniable and the room gave it back to him with a great response to his performance.
The final solo act was Lydia Warren, a woman with an amazing voice and formidable guitar chops. As a solo act and with her trio, Lydia has a lot of touring under her belt and her easy stage manner certainly derives from much experience. She can wrap her vocals around whatever subject she chooses and easily hold a room in the palm of her hand. With a skillful use of dynamics she can let it rip or bring it down to a whisper. She covered a breadth of styles and showed us the range of her versatility.
After that we had a bit of a breather while the stage crew got ready for the bands. This time Lydia drew the names out of the jar, and the first to go was Sturdy Moss. They looked a little unconventional as they got situated on stage and I didn't really know what to expect. It didn't take long into their first song and I was impressed. There was a skillful interplay of the two guitars as Joe Pirroni handled a strong rhythm role while Michael Freeman tore it up with accents and fiery solos. The bass was in the pocket and the other aspect that kept it interesting was having two drummers, one of whom first played percussion, and then went behind the kit. The crowd loved the guitar work but there was more than just that. This band really got the room revved.
Next was Arthur James and Northbound. I kept wondering to myself if you're "Northbound", how can you possibly ever get to Memphis (which is where the winner of this contest would be headed come next February)? I guess that's just one of those mysteries of life. Arthur proved they could be bi-directional and take it where it needed to go. This act was a trio, with Gil Rand on bass and Johann Haas on drums keeping the rhythm unit economical and tight. It was up to Arthur to show off his guitar and vocal chops, which he did with energy and flash. Arthur has the amazing ability to finger pick and make it sound like he's using a flat pick. I had to look to believe it.
The third act was the Michael Vincent Band. As Michael said, with the three of them, they have 60 years of living between them. Here is more young talent from whom we'll be hearing a lot in the future. Michael has been strongly influenced by Stevie Ray among others; however he took care not to create a tribute band. Their original material is quite good, but what really brought a smile to my face was a cover of Lonnie Mack's "Wham", a great tune that I don't hear played very often. Michael and his band bring great energy to the stage and they have a strong fan base.
The fourth and final act was Chris Noyes and The Annoyed Oysters. How can you not get excited about hearing from a band with that sort of a name? Almost anything could happen. Luckily for us, Chris' music was far from the any beach music that the name could have suggested. It was all blues. Chris has a great harp player in Little Harpo, aka Joel Latulippe, and a solid rhythm unit to back him while he handles the vocals and guitar chops. They put together a great set that tied the night up with a bow.
The judges had their work cut out for them, and I didn't envy them the job of determining who would get cut and who would go on. However, the criteria set out by the International Blues Challenge rules committee are fair and logical, keeping everyone on the same page. All the judges had to do was call it like they heard it. Still, there were a few nervous glances as everyone waited for the results. Within a few minutes the score keeping was complete, the totals were counted up and we got the word: The winner of the solo category was Lydia Warren, and the top dog in the band category was Arthur James and Northbound. Then the announcers tossed out a surprise: There is another category for Youth, and in that capacity Michael Vincent would also be sent to Memphis with Lydia and Arthur to represent New Hampshire.
What a night. In reality, any of the contestants could have gone to the national stage and done us proud. There is an amazing level and depth of musical talent in this state and all it takes is a showcase like this one to drive that point home. But you can also hear incredible performances in bars and restaurants, at fairs and farmers' markets, at private parties, around campgrounds and of course, blues festivals. In fact, on August 7th you'll see the Granite State Blues Challenge winners playing at The Barnful of Blues in New Boston, NH. You only need to search it out, so try to get out there and support live music. It's worth it. My wife and I came home really glad we made it to this event. And it sure beat the hell out of fixing the washing machine.
Sandy Alexander is a songwriter and keyboardist. When at home on Lake Sunapee, Sandy plays out with local bands and regularly plays with Pete Merrigan in New Hampshire, Tortola and Florida. He also plays with the Cullen Winter Blues Band when staying in Taos, New Mexico during the winter months. When he isn't working on his music, Sandy can be found collecting and restoring vintage keyboards from the 60s.