June 11, 2016: The Connecticut Blues Society presented the Annual Band Challenge – featuring the winners of 4 preliminaries plus a wild card. The competition was in the afternoon, so the bands can get paying gigs at night. Every seat was filled. The talented bands covered a diverse range of Blues styles. The judges were made up of musicians, media personalities, and experienced Blues fans. The scores were based on the Blues Foundation Criterion – Blues Content, Instrumental Talent, Vocal Talent, Originality, and Stage Presence. Blues Content the most important. The challenge winner is awarded $2000 to represent CTBS at the International Blues Challenge, in Memphis (Jan 2017). They are also booked for gigs at local festivals.
The Challenge winner for 2016 is THE DANNY DRAHER BAND. Danny on vocals & guitar, Lonnie Gasperini on organ, and Steve Peck on drums – all experienced blues players. Danny is a previous winner of this event and a member of the New York Blues Hall of Fame. They performed original songs, some from the new album, Blues Blues Blues. Highlights were “Lil Girl” and “Having Big Fun”. Danny expressed his showmanship by playing with his teeth and behind his back. The band impressed the judges with their ensemble play and professionalism.
The competing bands can all be proud of their performances. The Coffee Grinders were the only acoustic band in the Challenge, keeping the traditional Delta Blues alive. Frank Breen is a Blues historian and expert at fingerpicking and slide guitar. He opened the set on vocal, with a deep bluesy voice. Jim Choquette does most of the vocals (possessing an amazing wide range) and excellent harp. Howie Horn gets a big sound from his washtub bass – adding to the authentic blues feeling. They do traditional country blues, and interesting versions of contemporary songs like ZZ Top’s “Jesus Left Chicago”.
EasyBaby is an outstanding band fronted by the dynamic vocals of Kelly Rago and wailing harp of Rich Badowski. Kelly’s vocals can be tough or soulful / sexy. Rich was at his best, along with Max Samson (bass) and Dennis Cotton (drums) on their version of “Shake’m On Down”. Trevor West played excellent guitar on “I’m Going Upstairs” – from their new album. Real crowd pleasers.
Carl Ricci and 706 Union Ave played a solid set of Chicago and Texas Blues. The band is led by Carl Ricci on guitar and the passionate vocals and authentic harp of Drew Blood (aka Andy Grzybowski). It was a pleasure to hear a band interpreting vintage blues from the south side of Chicago. A highlight was Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t Got You”. Bob Bequillard (drums) and Mike Law (bass) laid down a firm beat and Andy’s harp was outstanding. They finished with Carl showing his Texas influences on The Crawl.
The Rich Badowski Blues Band are veteran players who exhibit talent, showmanship and excellent rapport with the audience. Rich Badowski is a previous winner of this competition and can blow harp with the best. Well versed in the Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, he also surprises us with songs like “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion” and “White Boy Singing the Blues”. Michael St George was outstanding on guitar and vocal on Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind”. Greg Allen is considered one of the very best on bass and with Brian Caudle on drums, they provided a solid rhythm section.
The Challenge had a good mix of new musicians and veterans. Rough Justice was an impressive blues rock band. Richie & the Red Hot Blues Band and Say What are exciting young bands. The Redliners are veterans who always put on a good show. Washboard Slim and the Blue Lights treated us to a jug band style. Kris Heaton brings high energy blues rock with a smile. Touro Blues Band play the real blues of Magic Sam and Otis Rush. East Coast Blues and Sadie & The Jumpcats are big bands playing R&B, rock, soul, and jump blues that generated dancing.
The CT Blues Society thanks Sue and Ray Meeker for organizing the event, the VFW (in West Hartford) and Black-eyed Sally’s for hosting, and Blue Moon Beer for sponsoring the Challenges. Tom Retano for the MC work and organizing the jams. The judges, especially the ones who performed in the jams. We appreciate that the musicians exhibited sportsmanship and respect for their fellow participants. Please support the Fund Raisers to help the Danny Draher Band with their Memphis experience. [ ]