With their battle of the bands, local blues musicians issue a Challenge.

Black and Blues 

With their battle of the bands, local blues musicians issue a Challenge.

With so many groups constantly performing with prizes on the line, the area's music scene can feel like an extended reality show, with hidden cameras tracking rivalries and some trying-too-hard host keeping score between quips. After weeks of preliminary rounds, one such event recently ended with a flourish of superhuman solos, magnificent manes and rumbling rhythms. In front of a rowdy crowd, the finalists ripped through riffs and summoned throat-shredding screams, willing to trade tomorrow's bloody fingers and mute vocal cords for tonight's title. Club Wars?

Oh, that ended days before, with Sound and the Fury taking top honors. This was the Blues Challenge, yet another annual competition in a city enthralled by musical combat.

Unlike hard-rock battles of the bands, which often incorporate ticket sales and crowd response into their formulas, Blues Challenge judges use the International Blues Foundation's strict criteria: talent, blues content, originality, stage presence and overall impression. There's also a strict thirty-minute time limit, and bands can be penalized for exceeding it even by seconds. To prevent such mishaps, the Kansas City Blues Society posted a stopwatch-brandishing spotter in the front row, where he'd hold up signs in marking the ten-, five- and one-minute-remaining marks. No finalists ran long at the Grand Emporium on November 20, though the spotter did have difficulty making eye contact with Levee Town, the members of which were all engaged in serious midsolo squints as he sought their attention.

Some genres just started to follow the blueprint on a local level -- see the country hopefuls competing in the Nashville Star Talent Search at the Beaumont Club on Thursday, December 5, and Friday, December 6. Surprisingly, jazz was once the most fisticuffs-friendly art form. A 1928 Kansas City Call ad touts "The Battle of the Century" and asks, "Can George Lee Outplay the Blue Devils?" Lee's "novelty singing orchestra," a caption reads, "has never met defeat. But the Blue Devils "have never run from a contest." In those days, though, such phrasing wasn't just hype. Missouri native Walter Page's Blue Devils were territorial musicians who protected their turf with bare-knuckle cutting contests called ... battles of the bands. Like death metal, though, the term has lost its violent connotations.

The players in today's "battles" and "annihilations" aren't looking to settle any scores. Scott Eldridge, drummer for Blues Challenge champs the Hipnotics, used another band's drum set to pound out his blueshammer beats. "He was so superfriendly," Eldridge recalls of the donor. "He kept asking if I needed any help and where he could put the cymbals." These days, it would be uncouth for a supposed rival to offer a proctologically improper response to that inquiry, even at Club Wars, which cleansed the unfriendly atmosphere from prior America's Pub events and turned a dysfunctional rumble into a love-in.

There's still a final frontier for anyone incensed by hockey's crackdown on assault and battery or mistakenly overjoyed by those horribly realistic video-game ads that simulate a newscast announcing a ground war with Iraq. To spark some actual animosity, just suggest that Club Wars and the Blues Challenge are actually the equals they appear to be.

"Most of those Club Wars bands couldn't buy a gig in town," Blues Society President Stan Koron says with a snort. "All of the Blues Challenge finalists are steady-working groups. And we don't have any of the pettiness, either. It's a lot more mature."

Hear that, Club Wars commander Jim Kilroy? Them's fightin' words. It's time for Mustang-driving mulletheads to battle the "Mustang Sally" set. Enlist some wild cards, too -- the meanest, gnarliest battlecats in the region, like fire spitter Mac Lethal, the pugnacious and pungent Sister Mary Rotten Crotch and Rex Hobart, who has reduced grown men to tears. A multigenre melee might settle everything once and for all, pitting black-and-blues bruisers against the rockers who bastardized their chord progressions. Or, more likely, it would settle little. Either way, it would probably draw a big crowd, which means it won't be long until some promoter pulls this fight card. Like sale and free, the words battle and challenge have the power to lure folks to places they'd never normally go, like nightclubs on a weeknight.

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