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Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014 12:01 am

Blues Sisters

Local women singers head to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis

Brooke Thomas, Monica Morris and Josie Lowder.


“I have heartaches, I have blues. No matter what you got, the blues is there.”
– John Lee Hooker

Jan. 21-25, at the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis, Tenn., hundreds of blues musicians gather from all over the USA and parts of Europe to compete for cash, prizes and industry recognition. Artists as bands and solo/duo combos walk onto a stage and give the finest performance possible. Then, based on the evaluation of IBC judges, the journey ends or continues to the finals. Monica Morris with Josie Lowder (solo/duo) and Brooke Thomas and the Blue Suns (band) are representing Springfield’s Illinois Central Blues Club (ICBC) at the competition, joining the other participants in a quest to be the best.

The ICBC, a nonprofit local blues club in existence for nearly three decades, annually hosts a “Battle of the Bands” contest that sends chosen artists to Memphis as challenge contestants. Past participants include local favorites Back Pack Jones, IBC semifinalists in 2013, and Robert Sampson, the only central Illinois solo performer to ever reach the IBC finals.

This year, however, is the first time both sets of competitors are female-fronted. In the male-dominated music world and especially in the blues arena, it’s an unusual occurrence. Granted, many women on the national and regional scenes have sung the blues, adding a colorful cast to the genre, but still the majority of artists are male. The ICBC certainly sent a good share of female representation to the IBC before, including Brooke in 2010 as part of a duo with Mike Burnett and Tombstone Bullet featuring Mary Jo Curry in 2012. Hurricane Ruth made it to Memphis, as did the female-fronted Blues Expressions in 2013. Now in 2014 Monica Morris with Josie Lowder, and Brooke Thomas and the Blue Suns, head for the big city in the South to compete in the prestigious International Blues Challenge.

“Of course, there are a lot of ways you can treat the blues, but it will still be the blues.”
– Count Basie

Monica Morris, born the daughter of a working musician, spent her early years surrounded by music. Blessed with a fine set of vocal pipes, she started out as a singer, spent some time studying music performance at the University of Missouri and Columbia College, Chicago, then wound up in Bloomington-Normal for a spell. There she established herself in a soul-funk-rock combo called Mojo Stew that became a fixture on the Midwest rock bar circuit from the late 80s to early 90s. After other adventures and relationships, she took a break from music, devoting time to working with rescue bird dogs (she still helps out when she can), singing here and there, but not seriously pursuing any music career dreams.

Josie Lowder and Monica Morris at the Road to Memphis fundraiser.

Fast forward to 2012 when, during a moment of self-reflection, Monica found herself wondering where in the world her music had gone. With a change in personal relationships came a determination to rekindle her dormant music inspirations. She began with a burst of songwriting and more frequent vocal performances at open mics and songwriting groups. Driven by a desire to be an inspiration to women her age more than by an ambition to make it big, she threw herself wholeheartedly into music, convinced the most important part of her self-determined mission was to believe in what she was doing by following her passion and dreams. She practiced and worked on playing the six-string acoustic guitar as a vehicle for writing and performing. Her skill increased and her confidence grew, while she honed her songwriting with a newly discovered emotional edge.

By midsummer of 2013, Monica decided to honor her father who had just passed away in May and play the blues, his preferred genre of performance. She tossed her proverbial blues hat into the ring at the Illinois Central Blues Club contest held during the Old Capitol Blues & BBQs festival in downtown Springfield last August. Presenting an emotive voice and brimming with confidence while doing a set on the bluesy side of the street, the judges picked Monica to represent the ICBC at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis for the solo/duo category in 2014.

After the excitement of winning wore off, Monica wondered if having another player to complement her basic rhythm guitar playing might make good sense. She approached local singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Josie Lowder about joining her as electric guitarist and harmony vocalist, as the two had successfully worked together before. Next she checked with current ICBC president Michael Rapier, since bringing in another musician after she had won as a solo act might not be permissible under the IBC rules.

We are happy to report the resulting decisions allowed for Josie to accompany Monica and they immediately began working on songs and presentations. Monica stresses that even though the contest rules state she is the competitor of record, she considers Josie to be an equal, integral and even necessary partner in the process and the project.

Josie, who comes with an extensive music family history of her own, hosts a Wednesday night open mic at Donnie’s Homespun. Also she recently made it to the Hollywood portion of the American Idol contest and performs regularly around town in several musical incarnations, including “Lowder,” with her brother Bo, along with other local musicians. Her father, Jaigh, plays as half of the original acoustic duo, Lowder and Manning, and her mother, Peggy, has been a performing singer for most of her life. Since joining forces last fall, the Monica-and-Josie-team produced excellent results. They’ve written and recorded songs, rehearsed aplenty, played several live shows, had quality photo shoots and, all in all, dedicated a big hunk of precious time to developing a good working music combination.

Over the past few months these comrades-in-music spent hours at EMG Labs, a recording studio in Bloomington, putting down their recent song creations. The resulting recordings debuted on the airwaves of WQNA-FM with Blues Power host Michael Goza. The songs then traveled to Champaign for an airing on WEFT-FM, and on to WHHP-FM, The Whip, in Farmersville, where they also did live, on-air performances. The tunes feature acoustic rhythm guitar work and vocals by Monica, along with electric rhythm and lead guitar, plus harmony vocals by Josie. The sparkling performances highlight the intense lyrics to create a fitting platform where the songs can sit.

No recorded instruments or performances are allowed at the Memphis competition, but making the recordings helped the musicians develop the fresh compositions, adjusting arrangements and planning music parts. Of the five songs intended for the contest set, Monica wrote three, Josie one and the fifth tune was a co-write. According to both women, no matter what the IBC results, the experience of getting together created a lasting bond that will carry beyond Memphis.

Archie and Shayla Logan, father and daughter saxophonists

“And as I started reaching deeper I realized that most of the blues of that day was done by men. Women just didn’t have the nerve.”
– Etta James

Brooke Thomas happily admits she has a blessed life. Her full-time work at Family Service Center is fulfilling, her marriage is wonderful and she gets to sing for people all the time. Growing up in a churchgoing family, she learned to sing with the congregation and music vocalizing came to her natural and heartfelt. As a teenager she got bit by the songwriting bug and continues to this day to pen genuine numbers that reach out to find bonds with listeners. She never pursued music as a career, though she did study singing in college. When Brooke landed her dream job, vocal duties took a back seat as a fun hobby used at open mics and family nights for pleasure.

Then one night in 2009 she was singing at the Walnut Street Winery when her vocal talents came to the attention of Mike Burnett, longtime local singer, guitarist and bandleader of the Suns of Circumstance. He approached her about joining together to form a steady working band, using top-notch area players. Not knowing who Burnett was and his reputation of being a steady, performing musician, Brooke agreed, figuring she’d just see where it all went. Mike turned on his magic, created the Blue Suns and, just like that, Brooke Thomas and the Blue Suns were playing all over town. By 2010, Brooke and Mike were on their first trip to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis as the ICBC choice in the solo/duo category. In 2011 they continued the frequent live shows and released a CD containing covers and originals recorded live by Ric “Skippy” Major during a performance at the Capital City Bar and Grill theater space. They are currently putting the finishing touches on a studio release of all original material penned by Thomas and Burnett with contributions from local songwriters.

This year with the band backing Brooke, she returns to Beale Street with Mike, and a chance to make a mark in the contest and/or get noticed by one of the many industry folks in attendance. Along with Burnett on rhythm guitar and vocals, the Blue Suns heading to Memphis consist of Luke Turasky (electric lead guitar), Ezra Casey (keyboards), Ian Grindstaff (bass guitar, vocals), Dion Doss (drums) and Shayla Logan (saxophone, vocals). Each musician in the Blue Suns comes with a pedigree of excellent playing around town, with the overall sound and feel of the band complimenting the seductive singing of Ms. Thomas to a tee. The group stays quite busy, often playing two shows a weekend, and at times more during the week, keeping a finely honed edge to the performance that should serve them well in the highly competitive spirit of the blues challenge experience.

Along with Monica and Josie, plus Brooke and the Blue Suns, the other Springfield-based band heading to the IBC is Back Pack Jones. The band went to Champaign in October and won the Prairie Crossing Blues Society local competition to get the Memphis nod from that club. The group opened for BB King at Sangamon Auditorium last September and recently released Betsy’s Kitchen, their first all-original blues CD. In an interesting aside, Shayla Logan, an original Blue Suns member, left for music studies at Tulane University for awhile. Her replacement in the band was Archie Logan, her father. Now that Shayla’s back on the sax with the Blue Suns, Archie teamed up with Back Pack Jones, so father and daughter are both going to the IBC, but with competing bands.

Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel.”
– Jimi Hendrix

Founded in 1980, The Blues Foundation, dedicated “to preserving our blues music history, celebrating recording and performance excellence, supporting blues education and ensuring the future of this uniquely American art form,” has always called Memphis home. The foundation, now celebrating the 30th year of sponsoring the International Blues Challenge, also houses and directs the Blues Hall of Fame, Blues Music Awards and Blues in the Schools. Along with doing a few other things aimed at making the Blues Foundation the world headquarters for all things blues-related, the 4,500-member international organization helps keep the blues alive and well, socially relevant and in the public’s eye.

Brooke Thomas and the Blue Suns (Luke Turasky, Mike Burnett, Dion Doss, Brooke, Ezra Casey, Shayla Logan and Ian Grindstaff).

The official rules for the IBC are complex, but seem to keep the large organization running smoothly. In addition to the annual contest in Memphis, the group watches over several affiliates and all the local contests that send the 250-plus competitors to Beale Street each year.

Once in Memphis, participants find more than just a competition. The gathering of hundreds of like-minded musicians to the same area for an extended time fosters a sense of community that spreads beyond those few days. The official challenge begins as every artist or band performs in the quarterfinals on both Wednesday and Thursday in front of a different set of judges at each performance. Votes and opinions are tallied and the chosen victors move on to the semifinals on Friday. Again judged during a performance, the next set of winners play at the Orpheum Theater to a full house on Saturday, where the grand champion in both solo/duo and band is declared.

The whole process is quite an experience, as those who’ve attended can attest, and it’s not just the winners who find success. Many industry types see what they like in performers at every stage of the competition and often groups gather enough attention to book out-of-town gigs and garner record label interest. At the very least there are stories to tell when you get back home about the wild and crazy times on Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn.

“The Blues will always be because the blues are the roots of all American music. The Blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding.”
– Willie Dixon

Perhaps the deepest meaning behind all the ballyhoo of blues bands and blues clubs and the whole blues phenomenon lies in what Mr. Dixon states, that blues reflects life. Growing beyond a simple music genre or style, the blues developed into a way of being in the United States directly related to the experiences of African-American slaves and the resulting treatment in the decades following freedom, through discrimination and racism in all its varied forms. The chordal movements with “blue” notes and the idea of self-expression through personal feeling in the blues permeates all our popular music. The genre reaches across racial and gender boundaries, perhaps because the feelings expressed are those of all humans, both in the lyrical interpretations and harmonic movements. The integration of music didn’t need changed laws or a civil rebellion, as it has in social life or professional sports. Music transcends many boundaries, and the blues are only one example of what occurs through playing music and listening to music throughout the world.

Whatever the true meaning of the attraction is, the blues are here to stay and reach into our lives in various fashions. We wish all our International Blues Challenge contestants the best of luck – break a leg, as they say – and may the best women win.

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.
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