All-student blues band plays Beale Street
A fairly common aspiration for many musically inclined teenagers is to start a band and make it big. Thanks to the Spa City Blues Society’s efforts through the national Blues in the Schools program, local students are getting to live out that dream and learn from local musical masters in the genre.
The Youngbloods were formed out of a five-day camp held at National Park Community College last summer. The Society had held a previous camp two years prior, but the interest in performing died out when school went back in session.
After the 2014 camp, the students were eager to continue practicing and performing as it fit into their schedules, said Sherree Hughes, coordinator for the group.
“When the camp wrapped up, they were wanting to perform,” she said. “They did a show at the (Hot Springs) Mall and have done a few at the Arlington (Resort Hotel & Spa). But when they kept wanting to perform, that’s when we set our sights on Memphis.”
The Youngbloods kicked their practice sessions into high gear, meeting every Sunday — and eventually Saturdays — to rehearse their set list for the 2015 International Blues Challenge, held from Jan. 20-24 on Beale Street in Memphis. The band was part of a youth showcase where other bands in their age group were essentially the opening acts for the week’s Friday evening activities.
“All the kids are put in a Friday showcase starting around 5 o’clock that evening, and the groups never know what venue they’re going to draw to play at along Beale Street,” Hughes said. “But our kids were lucky and drew Rum Boogie. They couldn’t have had a better venue and better event organizers to work with and they had a blast.”
The five members that were able to rehearse and attend the Challenge were 15-year-olds Ethan Kuntz and Michael Sousa, 14-year-olds Jackson Victorian and Zoey Pierce, and 13-year-old Marston Murdock. Each one brings their own style and flair to the group, and they all came to the group in a different way. But they all have a passion for the blues.
“My mom actually found out about the program and workshop through Facebook, but I wasn’t able to get involved this summer,” said Pierce. “I had played classical piano for about five years and around October, they were looking for someone to play piano. I never would’ve thought I’d be playing the blues, but it’s definitely a lot of fun.”
For Pierce, meeting other students her age in Memphis playing blues and getting involved was a highlight and made the experience worth it, as nervous as she may have been. For that, she encourages anyone interested in joining the group to give it a try. “It’s definitely a good experience to be in this group,” she said. “Even if you don’t know how to play an instrument, you’ll learn how from some of the best in town.”
Kuntz, who plays lead guitar for The Youngbloods, said the performance on Beale Street went very well, considering it was the group’s first performance with a new audience.
“No performance ever goes perfect and there’s always something that could have gone better, but I really think we really did a really good job for our first time to perform somewhere that wasn’t the Arlington,” he said. “We practiced a lot leading up to it — sometimes four-hour practices — and we did three shows beforehand. We were as ready as we could have been and it was really fun at Rum Boogie.”
When asked if they consider themselves a club, Sousa, Victorian and Murdock agreed that they really do consider themselves a real band.
“I don’t think you can play on Beale and not consider yourselves a band,” Sousa said, with Murdock adding that “Beale Street was the best thing to happen for us.”
As Victorian said “Who at our age gets to say they’ve played at Rum Boogie? Playing with these guys has been amazing.”
Hughes said one of the requirements was for the students to choose songs for their sets that demonstrated what they had learned about the genre.
“They learn in the workshop how blues is in all music — the ‘blue note,’ they call it,” she said. “They chose ‘In the Pines’ by Leadbelly, but they chose it because he was Kurt Cobain’s main influence. They came up with that themselves.
“And these kids have done more in just a few short months learning and the improvements they’ve made have really shown through. Without the help of Jared Roberts and Mike Fraz and all the other musicians that help these kids along the way, they would’ve never been able to accomplish what they have. We’re just really proud of them.”