Sunday, November 22, 2009
The sprawling grounds of the Monterey County Fairgrounds, on Sunday, Nov. 22, were mostly void of activity except for a Christmas tree sale at the north end, off-track betting in the middle, and, at the south end, the distant sound of music. Closer inspection uncovered the source: a raucous dance party in the Monterey Room building, fueled by blistering electric blues.
Countless bands had signed up for the Battle of the Blues Bands competition for a chance to win a slot at next year's Monterey Bay Blues Festival, which will reach its 25th year. Eight finalists were chosen, and, from 2pm to 6:30pm, they played a three-song set, in fast succession, to win the favor of the crowd, which cast ballots for the winner.
The day started with an opening performance by Dennis Murphy and the Honors Band, made up of local students in the MBBF Blues in Schools nonprofit music organization (and recipient of the day's proceeds); gregarious emcee Lea Durley described the young blues ensemble as "incredible."
The competition line-up, in order, included Sumac's Soul Heaven Band; Tip of the Top Band; The ReUnion Band, a regular at Sly McFly's; Sunny Blue Bland Revue; Mike Hammar & The Nails; downtown Monterey Cibo's mainstays V & The Flipside Band; Pat Wilder and Serious Business; The Bobby Young Project; the big, blond blues of Kaye Bohler Band; Sheryl Rouse & the Songbird Blues, from Louisville, Kentucky; and Blues at Eleven.
MBBF Executive Manager Vivian Waldrup-Patterson, sister to Monterey NAACP president Sylvia Quarles-Waldrup, estimated that the entire day saw roughly 500 attendees come through. The crowd consisted of a diverse cross-section of middle to older age people, creatively decked out in leather or patterned clothes, many of whom filled the dance floor in front of the stage on every song, to the end. They kept their energy up and bellies full on the lone food concession stand outside, Woodie's World of Wings from San Jose, to the tune of 800 pounds of wings (2,000 of the deep fried treats), polish sausage, cornbread and such.
The adorable young sisters of kid blues band Sister Sledge were in attendance to soak up the blues energy. Their mother said that they are currently in talks with people in L.A. for a TV show. Before a raffle announcement, Thelma Howard gave away many of her tickets to those who had none. She didn’t win the black MBBF commemorative jacket up for drawing--that would go to a woman who, earlier, had also won a canoe--but she seemed to draw joy just from participating.
"You have to give to receive," she said. That kind of spirit abounded at the crowded hall.
Powerhouse singer Sheryl Rouse says she flew out here from Kentucky to vie for a shot at playing the Blues Festival next year. And she didn't hold back. During her scorching set, she wailed, waved for her organist to stop playing as if she couldn't stand the power of his solo, dropped to her knees, fanned the guitarist with her skirt as if putting out a fire, and finished their three-song set with "The Thrill is Gone." But it wasn't.
Waldrup-Patterson and her MBBF crew tabulated the day-long votes in a discreet corner of the room. After a group photo with all of the contestants, MBBF Vice President Doris Jones said a few magnanimous words about how well everyone had performed and how, in the end, the kids of the 16 local schools involved in the MBBF Blues in Schools program were the real winners. Then she read the results.
First runner up: Pat Wilder and Serious Business. Second runner up: Sheryl Rouse & the Songbird Blues. And the winner, and next year's opener for the 25th Monterey Bay Blues Festival: Mike Hammar & The Nails (represented in the photo above by the three men on the left). At the announcement, the room exploded in cheers, though none could match the decibel of their drummer, Greg Moreno, who wrapped his beefy arms around his bandmates and howled.
"We've talked about the Blues Festival," said Mike Hammar, after being surrounded by congratulatory family, friends, and the other bands. "We've heard about it, and now we're...this is giant." Hailing from Merced and Mariposa counties, Hammar says that he and his five-piece band "pounded the pavement" and "knocked on doors" for a break like this. They also had a contingent of people come into town to vote. The two runners up will also get a slot at the summertime music festival next year.
"I'm glad I didn't have to judge this," said the event emcee, Lea Durley. "This was excellent. One of the biggest [Battle of the Bands] since we started [in 2001]. And it's good for the kids in the Blues in Schools, that's our proudest achievement."