What a week of music. I’m sure many of you ventured to Dickson Street for a free performance from Huey Lewis and The News and to sing along to “The Power of Love.” I can’t admit I wasn’t there, and I also managed to catch Girltalk’s dance party at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith campus the following night. But the highlight of the week was the 2011 Blues Challenge at George’s Majestic Lounge last Wednesday night.
For more than 10 years, The Ozark Blues Society of Northwest Arkansas has sponsored a blues competition featuring both solo/duo acts and full bands. Two lucky winners (one from each of the categories) are chosen to compete for money, and more importantly recognition, at the International Blues Challenge (IBC) sponsored by The Memphis Blues Foundation. The competition is held in downtown Memphis each year from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4. At last year’s IBC, an estimated 80 solo/duo acts and 200 blues bands performed in 20 different bars and venues along Beale Street. The finals of the IBC are held at the Orpheum.
This year’s Blues Challenge lineup was larger than usual — five solo/duo acts playing in the bar lounge, and seven bands in the garden venue — compared to last year’s two solo/duos and six bands for the blues challenge held at the Arkansas Music Pavilion during Bikes, Blues & BBQ. Acts arrived from all over the state, Missouri and Oklahoma to share their talents.
“I was very pleased with the response from acts wanting to participate this year,” Ozark Blues Society President Roger Ploudre said. “I thought all the bands performed really well.”
A heap of highlights throughout the evening included The David Kimbrough Band, featuring the son of legendary Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough; solo artist Kyle Lee’s stompin’ swamp tunes; solo/duo act winner Ray Bonneville’s guitar-harmonica combo and a 30-minute jam session with many of the musicians performing during the challenge, shakin’ it down with local musicians like solo/duo category judge Isayah Warford, a four-time blues challenge winner.
Other solo/duo acts to perform were Brick Fields (members of last year’s band challenge), Kathy Cole and Buddy Shute and Steve Jones. The band portion boasted blues rock band Trickbag, the soulful songs of The Groundscore, Blind Trust Blues Project father/son act, the melodious Eoff Brothers Band and the mighty aggressive Mississippi Fever.
The most entertaining portion of the knee-slapping night came from the crowd-favorite/blues band winner (by a 30-point spread) Nathan A & Max R.P.M., led by 16-year-old Nathan Aronowitz of Rogers who sings and plays piano, guitar and harmonica — all very impressively. R.P.M. stands for the last names of the other band members: Dan Robinson (drums), Matt Perrine (guitar) and Severino Myers (bass.)
“I think he really shows a lot of promise,” Ploudre said of Aronowitz.
During the week, Nathan A is a junior at Rogers High School, but on stage, this honor student summons the soul of a bluesman, and he’s the nicest, most polite kid you could meet. He started taking piano lessons and guitar lessons at 10 and then the harmonica at 12 when he said his grandmother pushed him from studying classical musical to learning the blues. Last year, the society provided him with a scholarship to attend the Pinetop Perkins Master Piano Class in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Before his band brought home the grand prize this year, Nathan A competed in the Blue Challenge the previous two years and competed in the IBC youth showcase when he was 13 and 14.
“I’ve never been one for judging myself, saying I did amazing or anything,” Nathan A said of the performance. “I felt everything went as good as it could have.”
The Blues Challenge strictly abided by the IBC rules for the competition at George’s. Both the solo/duo acts in the front bar and the bands in the back had timers (each performer had exactly 20 minutes to play, five minutes to set up and points would be deducted for starting or ending late.) With three judges for each, the two contests were graded on five criteria: blues content, originality, vocals, instrumental talent and stage presence.
For Nathan A & Max R.P.M.’s set, the band played three originals: “A Few More Steps” and “My Baby’s Gone” along with a harmonica jam coined “The Nathan Train.” The band will play the same songs at the IBC Challenge but will have time for five additional minutes of material for their performance.
The Ozark Blues Society uses its proceeds to send the winners to the IBC in Memphis, along with providing transportation, hotel rooms and meals for the contestants. The society also sponsors a blues jam every first Tuesday of the month at the Bayou in Rogers where 15-20 musicians share the stage. For more information on the Ozark Blues Society of NWA, visit www.ozarkbluesociety.org.