On June 13, 2015, the Connecticut Blues Society hosted its 20th annual Band Challenge, and this year’s competition was just as thrilling as the first. This year’s winners were The Mighty Soul Drivers who won with an outstanding set of blues and soul music. The intense, impassioned vocals of Bob Orsi helped defined their soulful sound and set them apart from the other preliminary winners and 2 wild cards. All of the fantastic blues fans in attendance were certainly appreciative of not just The Mighty Soul Drivers but the talents of all the finalists, and I expect they will continue to support them all as they play in venues across the state. The Mighty Soul Drivers will be awarded $2,000 towards travel expenses as they represent CTBS in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis on January 26th-30th. They will also receive gigs at the Red, White and Blues BBQ at the Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk, CT on 7/5, plus next year’s Two Left Feet Festival and Black Eyed and Blues Fest.
CTBS would like to thank all of the bands who participated in the preliminary rounds, our sponsors including Black Eyed-sally’s, Hannon Hatch VFW of West Hartford, and Blue Moon Beer, our CTBS volunteers, MC and jam coordinator Tom Retano, the jammers, judges, Thunder and Lighting sound, our photographers, and all the Connecticut musicians who volunteer their time to generate interest in the blues.
MIGHTY SOUL DRIVERS set the bar high by kicking off the finals with a rousing performance of “Good Time Charlie,” reminiscent of renditions by Bobby Bland and James Cotton. Bob Orsi’s vocals and stage presence were powerful throughout the set, and Larry Willey’s guitar was also crucial in their victory as he shined throughout the context of their set. In a blues world currently dominated by guitarists, this soul band strongly features the sax of John Smayda and keyboards of Steve Donavan. Not to be overlooked, River City Slim (drums) and Andy Karlok (bass) from the Zydeco Hogs held down a solid rhythm section. With such a fantastic set, it will be a pleasure to join them in Memphis.
D.D. KING, made up of Danny Draher (vocals and guitar), Greg Allen (bass) and Steve Peck (drums) are technically proficient and play like blues pros. Danny played with excellent tone and is a creative guitarist incorporating jazz stylings in his solos. Ready to compete, they played with strong blues content and the up-tempo “Little Girl” was certainly a highlight.
EASYBABY performed an outstanding set, led by Kelly Rago’s soulful vocals and by previous challenge winner Rich Badowski’s wailing harp. The band is supported by a great rhythm section consisting of power drummer Dennis Cotton and bassist Max Ce Lavie, returning to the band after a serious motorcycle accident. Guitarist Trevor West sat in his chair, cranking out some “down in the alley” blues during “Hard Times” and some slow blues where Kelly Rago certainly excels as lead vocalist.
BRANDT TAYLOR BAND is a New England favorite that should not be missed. You can catch them playing gigs throughout CT with their crowd-pleasing vocals and guitar work (including slide) and the CTBS Band Challenge was no exception. The fans in attendance were treated to BTB’s original take on covers like Albert King and Paul Butterfield’s “Get Out of my Life Woman” and Albert Collins’ “Traveling South”. Keyboardist Mike Golembeski tickled the ivory keys especially well on “Don’t You Lie To Me” while drummer Jonathan Lichtig and bassist Andrew Dapkin kept the beat going throughout the set. The crowd enjoyed the slow down on slow dance favorite “Rob Me Blind”, which can be found on the latest CTBS CD compilation.
NIGHT TRAIN is an exciting band made up of young blues veterans that went far in their first bid together in the CTBS Band Challenge. Jeff “JB” Berg leads the band with a strong voice and rockin’ blues guitar. He is best known for his work playing bass for Ryan Hartt and the Blue Hearts. The band is rounded out by the multi-talented Mike Law, of Mike Law and the Playboys, who keeps the bass thumping while the fantastic Tim Brown keeps pace on the drums. The crowd in attendance came alive during “Feel So Bad” written by Chuck Willis, but popularized by Otis Rush, Little Milton and Elvis. JB channeled the slide skills of Johnny Winter on “Gonna Murder My Baby” and they kept the excitement going with their original tune, “Midnight Train to Mexico”.
THE COFFEE GRINDERS closed out the finals playing acoustic blues, and drawing on classics from Charlie Patton (“Saddle Up My Pony”) and Robert Johnson (“Kind Hearted Woman”). Vocalist Jim Choquette showcased a wide range, and his harp beautifully complimented Frank Breen on guitar. The washtub bass by Howard Horn added an authentic Delta sound of the 20s and 30s. A highlight was Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks”, which you most will remember as covered by Led Zeppelin. The audience in attendance was certainly appreciative of this kind of vintage blues from three talented players. [ ]