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Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011 06:19 am

The Challenge of the Blues

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Sugar Prophets

Here comes February and all groundhog sightings aside, those involved in live music know this month as the occasion of the world famous International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn., hosted by the Blues Foundation.

For those unaware of this monumental gathering of blues bands and musicians from the world over (at least the world familiar with American blues music), let it be known the IBC is a big deal. This year marks the 27th annual challenge event, with artists competing in band and solo/duo categories from all over the USA and a couple from other countries. The idea is to involve regional blues societies in choosing artists ready for the national scene who need a break to grab that final rung. Former contestants who went on to national acclaim include Tommy Castro, Robin Rogers, Susan Tedeschi, Michael Burks, Slick Ballinger and many others.

Our connection to all this concerns the reputable and righteous Illinois Central Blues Club, Springfield’s blues music organization. As a participant in the IBC, the ICBC holds local competitions during the Old Capitol Blues & BBQ festival in August choosing a juried winner for representing the group at the international contest. This year’s champions, the Sugar Prophets as the band and Brooke Thomas and Mike Burnett as the duo, travel to Memphis this week to compete with hundreds of other groups in clubs up and down Beale Street for the chance to play the finals on Saturday in the Orpheum Theater. Panels of judges grade the various artists on everything from musicianship to stage antics using a standardized set of rules from the IBC and the winners move on up with the last band standing getting good press, some cash and guaranteed great gigs.

The Sugar Prophets hail from Champaign-Urbana and held a fundraiser last Monday at the Alamo during the Blue Monday Jam to help defray the travel costs and to give the locals here another look at their choice for the IBC band. The quintet claims a blues sound “heavily rooted in the Blues and Rock-n-Roll of the 50’s-70’s with hints of Soul, Jam Band, Country, Jazz, and Rockabilly”, and they play it up right. With former members of C-U blues band staples Kilborn Alley and the Blues Deacons, the band solidified the personnel lineup in February of 2010, recently released a CD and seem poised to move beyond regional success to arrive in a higher bluesland.

Brooke Thomas and Mike Burnett play the area bars and local circuit on a regular basis and that means they must be dang good. Burnett, founder and long time leader of the Suns of Circumstance, plays consistently and well in many musical combinations, considered one of the most popular and ubiquitous entertainers in central Illinois. Thomas adds her exciting, sultry and rich vocals to Burnett’s guitar and vocals to create an all around pleasing blues sound that found favor with ICBC judges and will hopefully do the same with the Memphis crowd.

The good news is whatever happens in Memphis doesn’t stay there, but carries over into the professional lives of all who attend, connect and participate in this terrific gathering that encourages the preservation and expansion of this all-American music art form enjoyed the world over.

In music news closer to home, take notice of a band called The Green View (yes, some, if not all members are from the village north of Springfield on State Route 29 bearing the same name). They’re hosting a CD release party Feb. 5 at Chilli Bears in – you guessed it – Greenview, Ill. The group Ala Mode opens the show at 7 p.m. and then TGV plays afterwards until around 11 p.m. The music is fun and bouncy, quirky and important, always interesting and worth your while. Please say Yoo Hoo, Green View, when you pay a visit.

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.

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