Last weekend, Houston’s own Keeshea Pratt Band took the blues music world by storm and earned the top honors at the 2018 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. It was Tuesday evening when the Houston Press caught up with Pratt, the band’s namesake, vocalist and freshly crowned queen of the blues. She wasn’t being fêted by the glitterati or vetted by music industry honchos. She was at home, cooking a family meal.
“It’s still surreal for me. I’m a full-time mama. I didn’t get a break. I came right on in, back to full-time mama mode,” she said from her kitchen, where she was fixing, “Something quick. I’m gonna do some hamburger patties in gravy and make some mashed potatoes and string beans. Something quick and easy. I’m not doing anything extreme today.”
Quick and easy, perhaps, but still a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs kind of meal, and one akin to the sizzling, soulful, musical sustenance Keeshea Pratt Band served all week while competing in Memphis at the IBC. More than 230 acts from across the globe – some from as far as Brazil and Australia - met to compete in the 34th annual competition, which is organized by Memphis-based Blues Foundation. None cooked like Houston’s newest hometown heroes did. Their skills ultimately earned the top honors after five days of performances along legendary Beale Street. A few thousand blues-loving spectators took in the daily festivities and at least one of those audience members gave Pratt and company an early hint that they were the favorites.
“So, my mom was there. Nobody knew she was my mom,” Pratt explained. “So, she was sitting at this table. I guess these people were from Norway – they were from another country - and the lady said, ‘I’ve been here since four o’clock.’ Mama said, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘Oh, I’ve been waiting on this.’ Mama was like, ‘Waiting on what?’ The lady said, “This band that’s about to come up. I’ve seen nothing like her since Tina Turner. It’s like Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin,…oh my God, she is awesome!’”
Pratt said her mother was so surprised by the fan’s enthusiasm she had to ask which band she was fawning over, knowing full well that her daughter’s group was about to hit the stage. The band has a horn-heavy sound and stirring songs to complement Pratt’s commanding vocals and energizing stage presence. Also bringing home bragging right are the band’s bassist, Shawn Allen; guitarist, Brian Sowell; drummer, Nick Fishman; and Pratt’s horn section, comprised of Dan Carpenter, (saxophone); Misaki Nishidate, (trumpet); and James Williams III,(trumpet).
Photo by Ronnie Gregory Booze, courtesy of Houston Blues Society
Remarkably, Pratt said they’ve been a band for only seven months, which should be an indicator of each member’s expertise. They honed their sound in rooms like The Big Easy, Emmit’s Place and Sambuca and competed last fall in Houston Blues Society’s Houston Blues Challenge and won the right to represent local bands at the IBC. John Egan competed in Memphis as the Bayou City’s solo/duo category act and made a strong showing, advancing to the IBC semi-finals. Houston’s Youth Showcase representatives were local upstarts, Untitled.
Egan, Untitled and every blues act in Houston has a new lead to follow in Keeshea Pratt Band and everyone stands to gain from the spotlight being shined here by virtue of their accomplishment. It’s just the latest in a long line of honors for local blues musicians, according to Houston Blues Society president, Anni Eason.
“For decades our city has enjoyed boasting a rich Blues history that few Houstonians are even aware of,” she said. “At the Houston Blues Society we are proud of our storied past and strive to educate through music and youth programs.”
Pratt, who hails from Mississippi, had all but given up on music. She considered herself too old to compete with the music’s up and comers until getting a fresh start in Houston, she said. She also said the whirlwind of putting the act together and rising to the top of blues music’s ranks was prophesized for her several years ago.
“My pastor gave me a prophecy,” she said and recalled him telling her that her vocation awaited in the secular music world, where she’d be surrounded by masterful and multi-racial peers.
“He said, ‘Now when it happens, it’s gonna happen quick,’” and she snaps her fingers for emphasis. “He said, ‘When it happens, baby, get ready, from nation to nation, country to country, kings and queens are gonna be calling for you."
With divination at work – from the heavens and also from more earthbound places like concert stages and rehearsal spaces – how could the band fail? Winning the International Blues Challenge is prestigious. The perks that come with a first-place finish are monetary, but mostly are the kinds that provide the notoriety bands need to build an audience and reputation. Pratt said the band will get some gratis studio time from the win and will play the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise in October.
“Everybody who’s anybody is on that cruise. From Taio Cruz to Taj Mahal to Bobby Rush…everybody. Everybody. So, we’ll do that. We’ve already booked for May, June and July. This is what’s been going on since I got back home,” she said.
Pratt notes it all almost didn’t happen. The pace of the week and commitment to leaving it all on the stage meant she had to lean hard on band mates and the moment to see the objective to its end.
“My cousin is a medical doctor there,” Pratt explained. “She came to the hotel and did a check-up on me and she told me – this was Saturday morning, and my voice was gone Saturday morning. Nobody knows this. She came in there and she told me, ‘Now, your body is not gonna shut down because you’re working on adrenaline. But the moment y’all finish, I’m gonna tell you right now, you’re body is gonna just go like a sack of flour, like a sack of potatoes.’ That’s exactly what happened.”
But not before Keeshea Pratt Band served up one more winning heaping of musical soul food. If you want to hear what a world champion blues group sounds like live, or just want to congratulate the winners, you won’t have to wait long. Rockefeller’s hosts a celebratory event for the champs at 5 p.m. this Sunday. They’ll be joined live by “The Mississippi Blues Diva," JJ Thames, one of blues music’s prominent blues belters and a personal friend of Pratt’s. For more information, check the event page here.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.