Folks in and around the Inland Northwest already know Sammy Eubanks and the Work’in Class are top-notch musicians, but now the rest of the world knows it too.
On Saturday, the band took second place in the 35th International Blues Challenge, which brought more than 260 blues acts from around the world to Memphis.
As per the challenge’s website, the International Blues Challenge is a “worldwide search for those blues bands and solo/duo blues acts ready to perform on the international stage, yet just needing that extra big break.”
Singer/guitarist Eubanks, then playing as part of a three-piece, made it to the semi-finals of the IBC in 2013.
Eubanks attended the event the next three years, and in 2017, his album “Sugar Me” was a finalist for the best self-produced CD award.
Before getting to Memphis, every act needs to compete in a regional competition.
For Eubanks and the Work’in Class – drummer Ken Danielson, bassist Scotty Harris, trumpeter Michael Lenke, keyboardist Steve Lime and saxophonist Charles Swanson – that meant a competition in Spokane through the Inland Empire Blues Society in May of last year.
After winning the local competition, the band traveled to Snohomish in August to compete in the state finals against representatives from other blues societies in the state.
They had a couple months in between competitions, but logistics meant there wasn’t a lot of time to rehearse together.
Harris lives in Seattle, so Eubanks sent him songs to practice. Once the band met back up in Snohomish, they essentially winged it onstage.
“We didn’t have a rehearsal before we played in Snohomish,” Eubanks said. “We just got onstage and played the set and were lucky enough to win there.”
After being named champions, the six piece prepared to represent the Washington Blues Society during the International Blues Challenge, which was held Jan. 22-26.
But once again, logistics meant the band members had very little time to actually prepare together.
They performed together at a fundraiser at the Knitting Factory in late November, but an unexpected snowstorm prevented Swanson from making it to the band’s rehearsal, scheduled for the day after the fundraiser.
The band, minus Harris, rehearsed together in early January before leaving for Memphis, but the next time the six piece performed together was the quarter finals of the International Blues Challenge.
“I said it after our runner up finish, that that’s what happens when you put a bunch of pros together,” Eubanks said. “These guys, they’re top-notch players.”
The folks behind the International Blues Challenge encourage original music, though covers are accepted, so Eubanks and the Work’in Class packed their set with Eubanks originals as well as songs written by friends of his.
The band sailed through the quarter finals to semi-finals, where the more than 260 acts in the competition were pared down to the top 48.
Those 48 acts performed at BB King’s Blues Club on Thursday.
Having played a couple songs at BB King’s with the headlining band in 1996, Eubanks was thrilled to return to the famed venue with his own band.
“BB King is my number one inspiration for playing music at all, him and my father,” Eubanks said. “His music has touched me since I was 10 years old. I wrote a song about it. I feel it every time I play. To go there and be there where he stood and had been and had played, it was pure magic and a blur and we’re all still numb.”
After a successful semi-finals performance on Thursday, the band was named one of eight finalists in the band division and geared up for a performance at the legendary Orpheum Theatre.
“Making the finals was my goal,” Eubanks said. “I told people going into it that if we made the finals, I would consider that a success. And then if we do make the finals, I think we have a great chance of winning the whole thing.”
The band played about five seconds past their 20-minute time slot, which Eubanks thinks cost the band a point (The International Blues Challenge is very strict about time penalties.), but when all was said and done, the judges, blues professionals from around the world, named Eubanks and the Work’in Class the second place entry in the band division.
Ms. Hy-C and Fresh Start, representing the St. Louis Blues Society, took first place in the band division, and Celso Salim Band, representing the Santa Clarita Valley Blues Society, rounded out the top three.
Jon Shain, representing the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina-based Triangle Blues Society, took first in the solo/duo category and Theresa Malenfant and Scott Medford, representing Canada’s East Coast Blues Society, placed second.
Aside from the experience of performing at BB King’s Blues Club and the Orpheum Theatre, Eubanks also enjoyed seminars hosted during the competition, like “Speed Dating for Musicians,” during which musicians got to chat with industry professionals, and “Find Me the Money,” which taught musicians about finding money in the music business via streaming, licensing and publishing opportunities.
“That was invaluable,” Eubanks said.
But he also made sure to take advantage of the networking opportunities the International Blues Challenge presented.
He ran into a man who runs two blues festivals in the Netherlands, for instance, after walking through the lobby of the Orpheum after the band’s second place-winning set.
As someone who wants to perform internationally, Eubanks made sure to strike up a conversation.
“It’s like making a stew and all the ingredients are there walking around the lobby,” Eubanks said. “You’ve got to put yourself in front of the right people and all the right people are there.”
But Eubanks knows he wouldn’t have gotten the chance to meet people like that without the support of the folks back home, including fans and members of the Inland Empire Blues Society and the Washington Blues Society.
“All the people that helped make this possible, all the people that support us all day everyday, year after year, they’re the reason we do what we do,” Eubanks said.
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