“No matter what your talent level, there has to be something a little unsettling about presenting your skills onstage and being judged among your peers. And when one looks at the scope of performances at the recent 20th Annual Blues, Jazz & Folk Music Society’s Blues Competition, it would appear that solo performers have a daunting task indeed. Gary Applegate (www.garyapplegate.com) of Indianapolis, IN met that challenge head on during his performances last Saturday.
While bands competing in the contest certainly have an advantage of a fuller sound and a livelier stage, Applegate utilized a few talents of his own as well. The competition witnessed four solo acts over its two day run with two of those performers advancing to the final round on Saturday evening and a third just barely missing out.
What is it that gave Applegate and Elyria, OH’s Luther “LT” Trammell a ticket to the finals? Several factors come into play for the solo contestant, with two obviously enormous ones being instrumental and vocal talent. When the solo performer walks onto the stage, they are essentially walking on to a blank canvas ready to be painted by their musical talents. Sure full bands will paint their own portrait as well, but often times the same full sound that bands attempt to achieve may also create a less defined vision of the combined talents being presented.
In the competition, blues content is the heaviest weighted scoring category, meaning that all the contestants are assessed a number between one and ten by the judges and then their score is multiplied by a value of four to achieve an acts “blues content” score. While bands may sometimes have the tendency to stray into other musical genres during their performances, the solo artist can strip their presentation down to the essential old school fundamentals of the blues themselves.
While just literally singing the blues may be grandfather of all blues music, one can easily imagine that an acoustic guitar and a harmonica are not too far down that family tree. But while Trammell presented a more traditional performance, Applegate wowed the fans and judges with a little bit of technical know-how to go along with his obvious talent.
“I’ll be playing all the sounds you hear live,” Applegate said to the standing room only crowd before beginning his twenty minute set. Armed not only the traditional acoustic guitar and harmonica instrumentation, Applegate also uses a unique style which allows him to incorporate a bass line and a kick drum sound … all being played by him live!
Through a little modern technology (no more than your average electric or bass guitar player uses in foot pedals or amplifiers), Applegate transforms his two lower strings in the E and A positions, into the bass line and splits the signal to a bass amp onstage. On the floor, Applegate’s right foot becomes a metronome/kick drum which is amplified as well. So far there are two tracks being played … are you following?
The other four guitar strings are played as rhythm and lead during the performance … now there’s three tracks. Next throw in vocals or an occasional blast of harmonica, and yes that right, Applegate is essentially keeping four separate tracks under control at one time! All of which are being played live.
Now it is easy to discuss Applegate’s interesting set up, but ultimately it still boils down to the performer being able to exude the power and emotion on which the blues have relied for hundreds of years. There has to be a felt personal connection between the crowd and the performer, with the artist holding the keys to unlock those emotions.
In a bittersweet manor, Applegate explained the story behind his original song, “Damn It! I’m Lonely” and that sometimes elusive connection was established. It was inspired by his loss of a loved to cancer at far too early of an age.
In years past the BJFMS would award a sponsorship to both a band category and a solo performer, but that was changed a few years back. Luckily for Applegate, the BJFMS came up with an interesting guideline concerning sponsorships of solo performers.
Within the finals of the blues competition, if a solo performer places in the top three spots, he or she will be awarded a sponsorship by the society to the International Blues Challenge. Applegate will be busy in home state of Indiana, before returning on July 6th for the 18th Annual Red, White & Blues Festival in Marietta.