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Here & Elsewhere

Deadline Blues

Springtime in Omaha. 'Tis the season for bluesy challenges.
Deadline Blues
Published on March 7, 2011

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So it’s almost the 15th of the month, and a bunch of Nebraskans are rushing to file. No, we’re not talking about income taxes. What exactly could it be?

I suppose I’ll just give it to you: They are filing blues applications. You might not have heard, but March 15 is the deadline for submitting an entry for the Nebraska Blues Challenge.

The what?

Blues challenge, I said. Blues. It’s a low-down kind of thing. Mississippi Delta. The crossroads. Sweet Home Chicago. Robert Johnson. Bessie Smith. Muddy Waters. “Woke up this mornin’, feelin’ ’round for my shoes.” That kind of stuff.

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This column comes with a built-in soundtrack: “Nebraska Blues” (Vocalion 1606) by Victoria Spivey. Recorded in Chicago on March 29, 1931.

Every year, the Blues Foundation hosts a big battle of the bands in Memphis called the International Blues Challenge (IBC). It’s been going on for almost 30 years, and each participating blues society—from Omaha to the Mississippi Valley, from Chicago to Japan—recruits musicians to compete. But before you get to go to the Big Dance, you have to prove yourself on your home turf. So each affiliate blues society holds a competition to distill the local talent down to one or two bands who then get a shot at the IBC.

The 2011 Nebraska Blues Challenge will take place from April to May, in both Omaha and Lincoln venues. (The winner qualifies for the next IBC in January 2012.) After reviewing all of the band submissions—which include a demo tape or CD—the Blues Society of Omaha will pull together a shortlist of contestants to perform at local bars, with a panel of judges in attendance. The panel typically includes a cross section of “blues people” who include musicians, deejays, record producers, talent buyers, or writers.

Editor’s note:

Here and Elsewhere is a new column written by non-, former, and future Omahans. More guest contributors to come! Contact us if you know someone who you’d like to hear from!

I know a thing or two about these panels, having been summoned a few times—twice to judge the Boston Blues Challenge, and once to judge a prelim round of the Guitar Center King of the Blues competition. It’s fun to be the judge, but I always struggle with how to be absolutely fair to the contestants. The subjectivity of the process annoys me, though I realize there is no other way to do it. For each band, you get a voting slip with a series of categories—let’s say it’s Originality, Technique, Stage Presence, and Overall Awesomeness—and then you assign a point value for each category on a scale of one (lowest) to five (highest). Ideally, once all the votes are in, an impartial person does the counting.

Each judge is certain to tackle these criteria differently. For example, I don’t mind if a band does a lot of covers in their set as long as their interpretation feels very personal or improvisational. But a musician or deejay might disagree with me, and dock them points for originality. If a nightclub owner or talent buyer is judging, they might be keeping a closer eye on the crowd—because if a lot of people are suddenly dancing and drinking, that’s the mark of a successful live band regardless of how original or technically proficient they are. But should a band win just because they scored a good bar tab for the club? Well, it depends on how “bluesy” they are. What if it’s a soul singer who sings bluesy? Is that bluesy enough? It depends. What if the guitarist is a rock guitarist, but he plays rock in a very bluesy style? Is that bluesy enough? It depends. No one at the table has the same definition of the blues, so it always depends… 

I’ve seen (and heard) the good and the bad. The good included a spare take on Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur,” as well as a rendition of Skip James’ “Illinois Blues” that I still remember almost six years later. (I picked both of these musicians to win when I judged them, but I got outvoted both times. Just because you’re one of the judges doesn’t mean you agree with the decisions.) 

The bad included a guy who climbed up onto the bar as he sang “I’ll Play the Blues for You” and almost got clocked by a ceiling fan. Worse was a punk band that didn’t really know how to play blues, so they did Elvis covers for 30 minutes. But I actually thought that was kind of original, so I gave them two Originality points.

Ah, Blues Challenge season. The memories…

I have since retired from my judicial blues responsibilities. But every once in a while I’ll check out the local Blues Challenge to see who’s coming out and which bands are working their way up. If you’ve never been to one, it’s kind of a throwback to the old days, when a bar would stage a battle of the bands, with the winner getting a bottle of whiskey. Back then, there were no judges’ tables or voting slips, no blues societies, no applications to fill out. I guess the one thing that’s the same is that the crowd is always the true judge. 

Who will be the best blues band in Nebraska this year? 

I trust you to pick. 

2011 Nebraska Blues Challenge

(sponsored by the Blues Society of Omaha)

Check the BSO Blues Forecast page for details on venues. BSO is also on Facebook.

  • Sunday, April 10: TBA
  • Sunday, April 17: Zoo Bar (136 N. 14th Street, Lincoln, Neb.)
  • Sunday, May 1: TBA
  • Sunday, May 15 (finals): TBA
mr.changKenny Chang is a guest contributor to by way of Satellite Jones.

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