Janis Lyn Joplin entered "The 27 Club" — the storied list of musicians who died at age 27 — on October 4, 1970. Thirty-four years later, a year shy of her 27th birthday, Cleveland songstress Mary Bridget Davies continued Joplin's legacy of soulful, awe-inspiring performances with Joplin's original band: Big Brother and the Holding Company.
"Mary Bridget has a lot of power," says Sam Andrew, guitarist of the legendary San Francisco psychedelic-rock band. She uses it for the good. The audience can tell that she is with them, and they are important to her."
Today, Davies leads her own band, and in February it's headed to the 2011 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. This is Davies' second trip to the event; she was there in 2004 with the band Blues on Purpose, representing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
"The first time I went [to the IBC], the band and I just showed up," Davies says. "We didn't go through any prequalification round or whatever, and we had our asses handed to us. We learned. You gotta be the top of the top in your region. Otherwise, you are just wasting the people's time."
The bubbly, auburn-haired chanteuse has always felt at home onstage. As a teen, she discovered blues jams with her parents, then joined in. Later, after dropping out of college, she hooked up with Cleveland's Something Dada, an improv comedy group that formed in 1994.
"The improv was the best tool for life, in all facets, but especially for performing," she says. "There have been a lot of things that would have happened if I hadn't had those skills. It could have gotten really ugly."
Davies' off-the-cuff wit has come in handy when she has found herself stuck in a bind — like the time she got separated from her Big Brother and the Holding Company bandmates at a gig in Germany and had to find her way back to her hotel without speaking any German. Or when she was jamming with former members of the Family Dog, the San Francisco hippie commune that staged many of the defining shows of 1967's Summer of Love.
"We were sitting down in a circle, singing an old Blind Lemon Jefferson tune, and they start passing a joint around," Davies says. "Travis Rivers — a former boyfriend of Joplin's — handed it to me, and I waved his hand away and said, 'I don't do that shit, man!' He gave me a strange look and said, exasperated, 'OK, Janis.'"
Joplin, whose vices were alcohol and hard drugs, didn't smoke marijuana.
"Travis and I went outside later for a smoke, and he said to me, 'For one second, you were just her. She used to say that to me all the time,'" Davies recalls. "I thought, Oh, my God, these people are like Janis' family, her best friends! And they are telling me that I'm like her!"
Sam Andrew, the music producer for Love, Janis — an off-Broadway play that chronicles Joplin's life and career between her arrival in San Francisco and her death — knew that he had a star on his hands. Andrew used Davies' talents to channel the doomed belter in 2007, when the show came to Kansas City. Onstage, Davies was backed by lead guitarist Terry Swope, drummer Zack Albetta and keyboardist Ken Lovern, who quickly immersed her in the local blues scene and introduced her to the other musicians, including bassist Gary Roberts, who would eventually form her band.
Davies knew that she was closer to success after a jam session at B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ with Samantha Fish and Danielle Schnebelen of Trampled Under Foot. "It was magical," she says. "To share the stage with two of KC's finest? I felt very much at home."
Local blues-scene stalwarts KoolAide & Exact Change Band and Brody Buster, who backed up Brother Bagman, proved to be tenacious competitors for the KC Blues Society's selection for the IBC. Beating out five other bands, Davies and her group took top honors in the qualifying rounds. They're headed to Memphis February 1.
But Davies says simply qualifying isn't all that proves a band's soul. "Some people will take their band, go to the podunk blues society in another city, or in the middle of nowhere where there are two local bands. They win, and they go to Memphis," she says. Her band is different, she argues. "We came into one of the top blues societies in the country and won."
Lil Joe Sherrick, the newly appointed president of the 30-year-old organization, believes that Davies' band has a good shot at winning in Memphis. "I know the criteria for these IBC entrants," he says. "You can't be a slouch to replace Janis Joplin, for goodness' sake."
Though they have played together for only six months, the members of her band — Roberts, guitarist Dave Hays and drummer Joe Voye — feel confident. That'll help — they're slated to face off against nearly 110 bands from around the globe. "There is no doubt that a strong frontperson is the key to success, but all the players in the band are very talented and have considerable experience," Roberts says. "We make a good, cohesive team."
"We put on a show [in the qualifying finals] that would be guaranteed, gift-wrapped — the stuff the judges in Memphis are going to want to see," Davies says. "They even let professionals and people with record deals compete now, so you really have to step it up." Armed with an all-originals set, the Mary Bridget Davies Band has a little less than two months until the competition. How would Joplin have told Davies to proceed?
"She would have said, 'Let yourself go, and you'll be more than you ever thought of being,'" Davies says. Then, with a classic blues-mama sensibility of her own, she adds, "And you better not compromise yourself because, hey, baby, that's all you've got."