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Never Mind The Baltics

April’s fourth annual European Blues Challenge saw a 18-band shootout in Latvia. The Blues editor watched the good, the bad and the ugly…

Riga, Latvia, turned unlikely blues epicentre on April 11 and 12, as the European Blues Union descended on the Baltic city for its fourth annual event [thanks to the efforts of Latvian Blues Appreciation Society chairman Normunds Kalmins]. At the heart of the weekend was the European Blues Challenge: a battle-of-the-bands fought out between the member countries. Continental bluesheads also had the chance to convene at the EBU’s General Assembly and talk shop and buy and sell merchandise at the Blues Market.

Having introduced The Blues to Europe at last year’s event in Toulouse I, paid-up EBU member 193, was invited to Riga 2014 as the VIP guest of the EBU’s current chairman, Thomas Ruf, founder of Ruf Records. The atmosphere is friendly, but it’s actually very businesslike too. The patrons of the EBU take their blues very seriously and they are always looking for ways to promote the bands and events to a wider audience. There’s obviously a language barrier but everyone is genuinely excited by the music.

Considered a bellwether for the health of European blues, this year’s Blues Challenge went down at Riga’s striking Sapnu Fabrika arts centre, and was arguably the most fiercely contested to date. The event is important because it shows the strength and solidarity of the scene in the UK and Europe. It’s also a unique opportunity to see the best of each member country’s talent all in one place. 

This year, 18 different countries sent a band to the final. So the judging process took place over two nights: nine bands a night. Each band gets just 20 minutes to play, then there’s a quick changeover, which the stage crew have got down to a fine art. Musicianship is important to the judges. Originality, too. There’s still a lot of scope to do something fresh with the blues and some of the bands at the EBC 2014 really nailed that. Judges are also looking for stagecraft. Keeping the crowds entertained is very important.

The EBC entrants ran the gamut of styles but the energetic Barcelona-based outfit A Contra Blues were deserved winners. Terrible name, in my humble opinion, but a killer band. I knew they’d won as soon as they’d finished their first song. Honest. The singer looks like Buster Bloodvessel of Bad Manners, but he has the voice of an angel. And the interplay between the two guitarists was just brilliant. Their guitar parts knitted together like a blues Judas Priest, yet they still managed to make it look like they were improvising.

There were some other bands on my shortlist. Denmark’s Big Creek Slim & The Cockroaches performed on the first night and were my early pick for a winner. They combined Delta-style slide with the stomp of Chicago electric blues. Also worthy of a bellow are Pristine, a great blues-rock band from Norway. Their singer, Heidi Solheim, was the balls, and easily the most professional performer of the whole event – she stirred the audience into a frenzy. Of course, there were quite a few Norwegians there but to be fair she had us all going. Marco Pandolfi Trio from Italy were fantastic. A cat in a hat, Marco comes over as a cross between Dylan and Jack White. He’s a charismatic dude and a great guitar player too.

As for Blighty, well, we was robbed. The Brit entry David Migden & The Twisted Roots did us all proud. I thought they might pull second place but it just wasn’t to be. They took third. Some suggested that they were just too ‘out there’ to win, but in terms of originality they were tough to beat. There were a few SRV wannabes so Dave and co were a blast of fresh air.

Beyond the Challenge, there was politics and flesh-pressing at Riga’s Tallink Hotel. Aside from the music, the big thing is the General Assembly where all the members meet. This is where the EBU board members are elected, any ‘beefs’ are raised then sorted out and nominations for the following years’ host cities are considered. There’s also the Blues Market: an afternoon where artists, labels, magazines etc can set out their stalls and talk to interested parties. 

Given that the European Blues Union was only officially registered in 2010, it’s already a slick and well-drilled operation which is having a tangible effect on the ground. The efforts of the EBU are paying off. Blues and blues-rock music is exploding in popularity in Europe. For instance, in Notodden, Norway, where they hold the annual blues festival, they’ve purpose-built a museum telling the full story of the blues. We currently have nothing like that in the UK. These guys are committed. We need to raise our game. 

We might have missed the podium at this year’s Challenge, but as for Britain’s chances of hosting a future EBU event, don’t rule it out. The event is actually hosted in a different city each year. Next year, the event will be held in Brussels. It’s not easy to get your city on the EBU map, but I’m hoping that London will be in the running in the near future. I’m doing my bit to make that happen. 

For more information on the EBU visit www.unitedkingdom.europeanbluesunion.com

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