Updated at 5:25 p.m. with Orq's account of the weekend.
This past week, Ezra Charles & the Works and The Mighty Orq, both long-running pillars of the local blues scene, each represented Houston and the Houston Blues Society at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn. The week-long competition brought in 110 performers from all over the world to compete in both the semifinal and final rounds.
Charles & the Works and Orq both advanced after winning their respective categories, Best Band and Best Solo/Duo, at the HBS-sponsored regional event last fall at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar. Charles says the IBC has grown into such an international event that a special showcase was created to allow groups from overseas to test their chops with a song or two the night before the contest actually begins.
"This was mostly amusing because their performances sounded so authentic, but their in-between-song patter was in their native dialects," the pianist (right) said via email earlier Monday, singling out Norway's Urban Blues Band for its specialization in the Texas-style blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and others.
Charles & the Works wound up competing against the Urban Blues Band in the IBC's first round, held last Wednesday and Thursday at 11 Memphis clubs. Charles' band was assigned to B.B. King's famous namesake club on Beale Street, at very different times.
"We were unlucky enough to have to be the first band to play at B. B. King's on Wednesday night" for their 25-minute set, he said, "but drew the seventh spot on Thursday night and brought the house down."
The group advanced to the semifinals, held at Memphis' Hard Rock Cafe, which Charles notes "unlike the one in Houston, has a beautiful permanent stage and sound system." The Works were selected to perform first again, however, and the sparse crowd at their 5:20 p.m. performance was mostly Houstonians who had come up to Memphis ("a surprisingly good turnout," Charles noted) and other musicians waiting to go on.
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Unfortunately, "In spite of our highly-praised performance, we were not picked to be the band from that club to go to the finals," Charles reported, "The winner from our club, who played late in the evening to a packed, enthusiastic house, went on to win third place in the finals, with their leader winning the Best Guitarist award.
This turned out to be Rob Blaine's Big Otis Blues, from Chicago. Although Charles & the Works' run ended in the semifinals, their trip to Memphis not only allowed the band to dodge the paralyzing weather conditions in Houston last week, but win over several new fans.
"We were amazed at how many people attending the festival had apparently seen us, and made a point of complimenting our show. Virtually every waitress who served us, knew who we were and loved us, and every hotel elevator ride resulted in a compliment from the other people on board," he says. "This was our first opportunity to step on to the national stage, and apparently we made the most of it."
The Mighty Orq (right), meanwhile, advanced all the way to the Solo/Duo finals, held Saturday night at the Orpheum Theater. Although he didn't win - the top two spots went to Germany's Georg Schroeter & Marc Breitfelder and Ontario's Harrison Kennedy - Charles noted that Orq did beat out more than 70 other acts to reach the final six performers.
Monday evening, a few hours before his regular Big Easy gig, Orq got back to us with his account of the weekend:
First off, it was such an honor for me to be able to represent my hometown in this event. Houston has such a rich musical heritage, and to be thought of even slightly as a torch-bearer for guys like Lightin Hopkins, Albert Collins, Johnny Copelandmor Johnny Brown was a tremendous thrill. The thrill of a lifetime, really.
Memphis was a beautiful town. The culture that I saw there was wonderful and I felt such a connection with and reverence for the artists that came out of there. The IBC itself was really fun although also somewhat nerve-wracking. (I can be a bit high-strung sometimes.)
What stood out to me the most about the competition was the wonderful sense of camaraderie among all the musicians there. In my experience musicians tend to be more stand-offish with one another. There was really none of that here though. Just a bunch of folks that love music, and blues music in particular, making friends and sharing their music and experience with each other. Truly it was magical in that regard. Everyone there on behalf of a common cause. A common love.
What I took away, was a sense of unity among musicians from all over the world, and additionally a deeper appreciation for what a great and supportive music community we have here in Houston. There were tons of folks from H-town there supporting me and the ECB.
I felt a real sense of community both globally and locally (to reference the bumper sticker) in a way I hadn't realized before. Music truly is the universal language and it was never more clear to me than at the International Blues Challenge.
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A full list of winners and contestants at this year's IBC competition is at www.blues.org.
"We owe a lot to the volunteers of the Houston Blues Society for their many hours of work that raised the money for our expenses, and for their encouragement and support throughout the contest," Charles said.