John Egan has been brushing up on his networking skills, while working up his mojo for the world's leading blues competition.
"They told me I needed fresh business cards," says the solo Houston bluesman known for twisting barbed licks out of his silver hollowbody Resonator guitar. "It's totally counterintuitive to my approach to this thing, but I understand."
Next week Egan will compete in the solo/duo class of the International Blues Challenge, the Memphis-based Blues Foundation's annual contest. Prizes include a smattering of bookings at various blues festivals across the country and a "blues cruise," a "professional press kit," $2,000 cash and significant career advancement.
Egan has been honing his chops at his Monday-night residency at the Big Easy and won the Houston IBC competition at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar in October, which allowed him the opportunity to compete in Memphis. Next week will be his first time advancing to Memphis after competing in the local round last year.
Next week Egan will perform at least twice, 25-minute sets both Wednesday and Thursday at the same club. He and the other contestants -- whom he describes as acts ranging from a guitar/piano duo to a "full-on one-man band" -- will be evaluated in three categories: the highly subjective "blues content," and to a lesser degree vocal/instrumental ability and originality/showmanship. If he scores high enough, Egan will advance to the finals next Saturday at Memphis's Orpheum Theatre.
Like many such events, the IBC is a destination for music-business types like booking agents, festival bookers (domestic and international) and label scouts. Egan figures a little mingling couldn't hurt.
"Hand out the business cards, hand out CDs, press the flesh, do everything that I probably wouldn't normally want to do, but it's an opportunity to advance the career to at least another stage," he says. "Hopefully the international thing, because that would be a chance to add some income to the yearly total. The guys who go [overseas] seem to do pretty well."
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Early last year, Egan released the album Phantoms, one of the most harrowing local releases in recent memory on the strength of such songs as "You Don't Hold Me Anymore" and a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper." His live performances can get pretty primal, with Egan working out a good deal of emotional distress on his poor battered Resonator. He says he's not especially worried about being too edgy for the IBC competition, though.
"I mean, what am I gonna do?" he says. "I'm just gonna feel out the room. I've always based what I play on my environment. I've played shows that are quieter."
Egan and Houston's other IBC entrants, youngsters Texas 99 (competing in the youth showcase, and featuring former Guitar Center "Battle of the Blues" finalist Rebecca Laird) and Brad Absher & Swamp Royale (IBC's band division), warm up for the contest tonight with a "sendoff party" sponsored by the Houston Blues Society at the Big Easy. He admits he's excited about the trip.
"I've never been to Memphis, for one," Egan says. "That alone gives me impetus to go. It's some place I've always wanted to go. We're going to leave a little early and try to make a trip of it -- go through New Orleans, go through the Delta, Clarksdale [Mississippi], maybe Helena [Arkansas]
"Just try to get all the mojo possible on the way up there."
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The Houston Blues Society's IBC sendoff party starts at 9:30 tonight at The Big Easy Social & Pleasure Club, 5731 Kirby.