Monday, November 16, 2009

The Long Road to the Emerald City Blues Festival

This blog was going to be a recap of the awesome time I had at this year’s ECBF, but the story of how I got there might be more informative for DJ’s and readers.

You might say I took the long road to DJ’ing in the northwest. About two years earlier I introduced myself by email to organizers on the west coast who suggested I buy myself a ticket west to DJ some house parties and see if I could get invited to DJ a weekly gig where I might catch the attention of someone who’d ask me to come back another time to do a monthly dance.

Portland seemed a particularly tough nut to crack when they explained I’d have to come out and do a 6 month DJ apprenticeship. It would mean 3 months watching a local DJ spin, followed by a month trading supervised 3 song mini-sets and then 2 more months playing 30 minute house party sets before graduating to DJ a full set at a weekly dance.

In fact, several people mentioned that DJ’ing large regional blues gigs in NYC, Philly and throughout the southeast, didn’t mean a thing to anyone west of the Mississippi if they hadn’t been there to experience it themselves.

Looking back now, I realize, at the time, I was the only person I knew DJ’ing acoustic and country blues in the east-- also, the growling trombones and weepy, wailing clarinets that make me melt. It seemed everyone else in the mid-Atlantic states was fixated on guitar heavy Chicago blues and the same dozen “standards.” One night a local event organizer told me, “Even though the DJ’s before me tonight played over half my songs, this was my best set ever.” He finished up with Nina Simone’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the statement, “If a song is good enough to hear once in a night, it’s good enough to hear 3 times.” So, maybe the west coast could be forgiven if they felt a bit superior about their taste in music at the time.

But I didn’t buy that plane ticket to play house parties or do an internship; instead I politely joked I’d just keep DJ’ing big gigs in the east until they had to call and invite me out on my terms. In the meantime, I experimented, researched, began editing songs to make them tighter, and continually met a growing number of dancers from the west coast at events who’d go home and tell their friends how much they enjoyed my sets.

In the end, I think my finally getting that phone call from the west some 2 years later came in some small part as the result of some luck.

Sadly, Heather Adams, who’d DJ’ed the blues room with me at ATLX, had to cancel DJ’ing last year’s Enter the Blues due to a death in her family. The organizers asked me if I could step up and take her prime time slot on Friday night as well as mine on Saturday. Also, another scheduled DJ had gotten annoyed he wasn’t offered Heather’s slot and called in sick at the last minute to stay home and dance, so I was given his time as well. In the end, that meant I got to play two solid 2+ hour sets that instructors Topher Howard and Brenda Russell and others greatly enjoyed.

So, I was particularly thrilled to be invited out to Seattle as a headline DJ alongside Steven "Dr Feelgood" Watkins, Tina "Sweet T" Davis and "Our Downtown" Julie Brown at this year’s ECBF. The truth is, had I come out earlier, I wouldn’t have been prepared to “trade ones”, alternating every other song on an equal footing with those other top notch DJ’s.

In the end ECBF was the most amazing dance weekend I’ve ever attended. All the music was incredible and the instructor lineup Brenda Russell and Barry Douglas, Steven and Virginie, Ogden and Amanda, and Topher Howard & Mike the Girl Legett was tremendous. Seattle is also arguably the most delightful city around. Even organizer Martin Beally, who’d like to keep up his reputation as a demanding hard-ass, was a wonderfully warm and personable host (on top of running a super efficient event).

In short, I’ll be taking a direct flight to ECBF next year and you all should as well.

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