Tweed Smith belts it out with the Nick Michael Taylor Band during the Houston Blues Challenge preliminary rounds.EXPAND
Tweed Smith belts it out with the Nick Michael Taylor Band during the Houston Blues Challenge preliminary rounds.
Photo by Ron Fontenot/www.RonFontenotPhotography.com

Houston's Best of the Blues Compete to Be Memphis Bound

Memphis is one of the several cities across the U.S. either calling themselves the “home of the blues” or making a serious case for it. The Bluff City already has a more than a legit stake to the title, as it is also home to the Blues Foundation and Blues Hall of Fame.

Of all the Foundation’s programs, perhaps the most exciting is the annual live-music competition the International Blues Challenge. For nearly 40 years, the Foundation has held the national finals in Memphis, with participating acts having already been named champions of local and regional competitions held by nearly 200 affiliated Blues Societies and groups across the country.

The Houston Blues Society will send two acts to Memphis: one in the Band category and one in the Solo/Duo category. After two preliminary rounds, the lineup for the finals is set.

Duking it out in the Band category will be the Nick Michael Taylor Band with Tweed Smith, the Keesha Pratt Band, the Mark May Band with Cheyenne James, and the Sparky Parker Band. The Solo/Duo finalists are Chuck Collins, John Egan, and the Nathan Quick Blues Duo.

Last year, the Houston Blues Society delivered the Steve Krase Band and Zac Person to Memphis, but neither won the top prize. Founded in 1993, the HBS has been sending winners to compete in the IBC since Leonard “Low Down” Brown in 1998. There will be six judges for the finals, none of whom judged either preliminary and whose identities HBS Vice President and IBC Challenge Chair Angela Escue is keeping closely guarded.

“It will be a diversified panel [of] blues musicians or [people] in the music industry who carry a lot of blues knowledge,” she says, adding that each act will get 25 minutes onstage. Previously the President of the San Angelo Blues Society, Escue has been in Houston for about a year and a half and loves not only what the city offers today in the blues, but its rich history.

Houston Blues Society President Anni Eason with Vice President and International Blues Challenge Chair Angela Escue.
Houston Blues Society President Anni Eason with Vice President and International Blues Challenge Chair Angela Escue.
Photo Courtesy of Angela Escue

“Houston is steeped in blues history," she says. "And the foundation of blues is apparent in all kinds of music we listen to today. It’s been a great ride to be part of something bigger than I have been. We have a tight little community here. The book Down in Houston [by Roger Wood] also taught me a lot about the city’s blues history.”

One of the more storied and experienced performers onstage will be Tweed Smith. The Houston native has toured the world as a vocalist with the group War from 1979-81, and was a backup vocalist on Ringo Starr’s Stop and Smell the Roses album. But she’s taking nothing for granted.

“I was most excited and honored to be in the finals because there have been some extremely talented people this year,” says Smith. “But I know that my experience gave me a little edge. I’ve only been working with Nick for about six weeks, and he needed a little ‘something-something’ to put him over. I’m like the gravy on the mashed potatoes!”

Smith adds that blues is just one genre she can sing, but she has a particular affinity for that and gospel. “They’re both about telling a story, and that’s something for me to work with as a vocalist,” she sums up. “I’m ready for the finals because I know what I’m working for!”

Another finalist in the Band category who will undoubtedly be working is Mark May. A Houston blues stalwart for many years, the singer/guitarist moved out of state for several years but has returned. This time, he competes with a young vocalist — Cheyenne James — in tow.

“It’s not about my voice being bad, I just have a smoother one. She is very powerful and brings that to the show, and it kicks things up a bit more,” he says. “She has a lot of talent.”

May himself has gone to Memphis for the finals twice already, as a representative of Columbus and also Cleveland, Ohio. And though he didn’t win the big prize, he says that the entire city is just alive with blues fans, musicians, bookers, agents, label reps, and journalists. So any band that even gets there will find something to help their career.

But he says there is one thing his band will do this time around that wasn’t so prevalent before. “We’re being a little more interactive onstage with the audience; that’s a big thing," says May. "If you have two bands that both sound the same but one of them is a little more charismatic, they’ll advance. That’s the entertainment factor that people are a little bit more used to with YouTube. People hear with their eyes a little bit more!”

Finals for the Houston Blues Challenge will be held from 4 to 11 p.m. Sunday, October 1 at Fitzgerald’s, 2706 White Oak. $10 cover.

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