The Blues411 Family would like to extend a warm welcome to our newest member & guest blogger ‘Michissippi’ Mick Kolassa (thank you Greg Nagy for the moniker).
Many of you know Mick as a member of the Blues Foundation, or as an accomplished musician who is equally adept at his own works as on that of others.
Mick and I have struck up a friendship via Facebook and I offered him a spot whenever he wants on her to share his thoughts and opinions on just about anything. So strap yourselves in and come along for the ride, flotation is groovy and everything, everything, everything is gonna be all right!
2014 IBC 30 Years and Growing
Advice from an IBC Judge
I have had the distinct honor of being a judge at the last few IBCs in Memphis. I’ve also done surveys of other judges and of IBC attendees and ran a judges’ orientation at the last event. IBC contestants often ask me about the event and if I have any tips that may be of help, so here goes:
Remember at all times, this the International BLUES Challenge, not the “blues influenced” challenge. Blues is a big tent but a lot of acts step way over into rock or pure funk – and that can hurt your score if you do it too often. The further from blues you stray the less chance you have of making it to the finish line. You can disagree all you want but that’s just the way it is.
Remember also that categories such as musical talent and vocal talent are judged across the entire act, not just the front person. It’s good when several people in a band can sing, but remember that you have 20 minutes to prove your stuff and if more than one person is doing the vocals your act will be judged by the weakest singer, not the strongest. The same is true across the instruments, a fantastic guitarist can be overshadowed by a so-so harp player or bassist – the entire act is being judged.
Guitarists: You get to show us your stuff in 20 minutes. If you come on stage with 6 or 7 effects pedals you are not impressing us, you are often hurting yourself. The same goes for those who use a Wah-wah on half or more of the tunes. Show us what you can do with the guitar and save the multiple effects for later. Too often good guitarists at the IBC have hurt their bands’ chances by going too heavy on the effects and not taking care of business. A little is fine, but too much will hurt you.
Harp Players: Show us a variety of styles and tones. If you play every tune through that same distorted mic you are telling us that you are limited, not that you are the next James Cotton.
Rhythm sections: A good rhythm section supports the rest of the band, a great one moves them forward. Drummers MUST keep time but should also add to the music – that’s why those rudiments are so important! Use them to add some fills and accent the tune itself – move it forward. Same with the bass, you can play that same riff and support the tune or you can mix it up and move it forward. Don’t try to steal the show but do let us know you are there!
Vocalists: Use all of your voice; show us your range, but don’t step too far over the edge. Even a voice with a fairly limited range can sound tremendous on the right tunes, but taking it just a little farther than your voice can go can cause a disaster at the IBC. Know your strengths and weaknesses – use the first and avoid the second. If you have had trouble hitting that note before don’t try it at the IBC unless you are really confident and you can hit it four nights in a row!
Stage Presence can mean different things to different people. Sure, Clapton used to play with a cigarette in his mouth and an open bottle on his amp, but you need to remember two things: he doesn’t do that anymore and you aren’t Clapton! It’s perfectly fine to show up at a regular gig wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but this ain’t a gig, it’s the most important battle of the bands on the planet and it could be the launch pad for your career. You don’t need a Zoot Suit (please, not everybody can pull that off) or uniforms, but think about the look – you are being judged on the whole package – not just your music but your show! Taking the time to look good also tells the judges that you respect the event and respect them. Casual or other relaxed COSTUMES can work if they fit with your act, but if you are plugging in an electric guitar and plan to wear bib overalls ask yourself if you are Buddy Guy – and even he doesn’t do that anymore!
Originality is a wide open category. I have heard a lot of “original” songs played at the IBC that were just reworking of old tunes – the lyrics might have been “original” but not the rest. I have also heard people play old standards that they took to an entire new place – that’s originality! If you do any covers then own them, don’t just play them. It’s fine to “cover” a classic blues tune note for note at a gig, but if you can’t add to it DO NOT DO IT at the IBC! It’s pretty common for at least one band in each IBC to play “Walkin’ the Dog,” and I’ve heard some well done versions BUT they have all been straight covers. PLEASE remember that this event is held in Memphis, on Beale Street. If you are going to walk a dog down Rufus Thomas’ street then it better be one helluva special dog! You are more likely to lose points playing that, or any other standard, no matter how well it’s done. Wendy DeWitt, an IBC contestant in 2012 summed this category up nicely when she told the audience and judges: “If you don’t recognize the song it’s original.” She then went on to play a version of Summertime in a way nobody had ever done before – as a boogie woogie version of the Rimsky Korsakov classic “Flight of the Bumble Bee” – that was original!
My final word of advice is this: enjoy the opportunity of performing at the IBC! Not only is it a rare opportunity for most acts to be playing on Beale Street, you will be exposed to one of the biggest audiences of blues fans anywhere – fans who really know their stuff. You will also be exposed to hundreds of other musicians, in addition to promoters, managers, record label execs and others. You can win big at the IBCs without winning the competition. Some acts that are now huge didn’t take home the trophy, and many never even made the finals. It’s fantastic to win, no doubt, but nobody loses at the IBCs.
photo by: Jay Moore
Until the next time comes along,
‘Michissippi’ Mick Kolassa
Where Blues Thrive