Many music fans think of the blues as an old genre of music from the previous century filled with depressing tales of mean, mistreatin’ mamas and sacks full of woe.
But while blues artists may not be topping the pop charts and shocking viewers on awards shows, the music is alive and well in bars, clubs and theaters in cities around the world including Akron. On Friday night, two area veterans, Colin John and the Juke Hounds (vocalist/guitarist Bob Gardner, bassist Gerard Dominick, drummer Mark Smallwood, harp man Jimmy Kormanik and keyboardist Doug Barber) will perform at the Civic Theatre.
The concert will use the Civic’s cabaret stage setup and is presented by the Northeast Ohio Blues Association. It’s sort of a warm-up gig for both John and the Juke Hounds who will be representing NEOBA at the Blues Foundation’s 30th International Blues Challenge in Memphis. That challenge starts Tuesday and will feature more than 125 blues bands from around the world competing in various categories for prizes that include a plaque, a wad of cash, a fancy watch and a string of gigs at blues festivals and cruises around the country.
Both acts have won area versions of the Blues Challenge and made the trip to compete in Memphis in the past, with John competing in the solo category in 2012 after winning the NEOBA contest. In 2011, the Juke Hounds represented the Cleveland Blues Society in the group category at the national competition after winning the Cleveland challenge.
Though neither group won the IBC — John made it to the semifinals, the Juke Hounds didn’t place — both believe being nestled in the bosom of the blues and surrounded by hardcore blues fans and fellow musicians takes some of the sting out of not winning.
“It’s a great networking opportunity. That’s primarily why I do it,” John said from his home in Hawaii.
“I resisted it for a long time because I don’t really believe music is a competition, but some friends of mine talked me into it and said you’ll be able to reach more people and it’s a great event,” John said noting that the talent level is uniformly high, the atmosphere is friendly and he’s befriended musicians from far-flung places such as California and Israel.
“You have to go and bring your A game at the same time you have to look at it realistically and say, ‘Hey, I’m fortunate to have come this far’ and kind of let the chips fall where they may,” he said.
“I don’t go with the intention of ‘Oh, I’m going to win.’ I think if you go there with that mind-set, you’re probably going to be disappointed because it’s very subjective,” John said.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie. I didn’t see one ego while we were there, and it’s a great place to meet people. Whether they’re from France, Italy or wherever, everybody feels privileged to be there,” Barber said.
“We’d all be lying if we said we didn’t feel a sense of competition. But having said that, everybody is there to have a good time and everybody there loves the blues,” said Gardner, the Juke Hounds’ primary songwriter.
“It’s like a three-day-long guitar solo,” Kormanik said, drawing laughs from his bandmates.
For the Juke Hounds, the Civic gig isn’t just a tune-up for the IBC; it’s also an opportunity for the band to highlight its brand new album, Bluesitude, a peppy, brightly recorded offering featuring 10 new tunes steeped in the electric blues. For Bluesitude, the band expanded its sound a bit and brought in a horn section for several songs. Plus, several tracks stretch the limits of the traditional blues form in songs such as the mostly acoustic ballad My Prayer; the tough, twangy Fight; the funky R&B Roller Coaster; and the New Orleans second-line groove that moves Superior Woman.
Both John and the Jukes say one tip they learned from their first trip to the IBC is that traditional blues is king and artists who mix in other styles do so at their own peril.
“It’s put on by the blues foundation. … They’re a very conservative organization. They’re looking to continue what has come before. So the more you vary from the tried and true blues sound, the less chance you have of being successful,” Gardner said noting that past contestants such as singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi, and current blues-rock “It Boy” Gary Clark Jr. both competed at past IBCs, didn’t win and have gone on to have successful recording careers.
John said he will strip away much of the exotic Hawaiian and bluegrass elements he usually incorporates into his music when at the IBC, and the Juke Hounds will forgo several songs that are beloved by local fans and will only play two songs from their new album in their IBC sets.
“We try not to go with the straight traditional sound because that’s not who we really are, but we try to make the set we’re competing with still have the traditional influence,” Dominick said.
But at the Civic, both John and the Jukes will do their respective things unfettered by genre restrictions. John will perform a solo set, followed by the Juke Hounds. There will likely be an end-of-show jam.
During the show, John will also bring to the stage Silece Jones and Devin West, two middle-school students and budding musicians who were the most recent recipients of guitars from the Christmas Guitars for Shining Stars foundation co-founded by John and Joseph Wilson of Cleveland, who is the chief entertainment officer of Run BMW music. The nonprofit foundation gives free guitars to interested, hard-working students. John stays in contact with the recipients as a musical mentor.
Silece is in seventh grade and Devin is in eighth, both at Buchtel Community Learning Center in Akron.
Though the upcoming IBC competition is on their minds, both bands are happy to be performing again at the Akron Civic Theatre.
“It’s such a lovely venue, I love these old theaters,” John said.
“It’s a really cool theater … Gerard [Dominick] always says, if the Civic called and said we could play the third closet on the left, we’d go do it,” Gardner said.