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  Idol Royale

  -- From the Riverfront Times --

The Blues RoyaleWhile thumping his six-string bass, Ben Smith simultaneously delivers some seriously soulful vocals as he and his bandmates in New Rising Sun work their way through a funkified version of the Albert King standard "Crosscut Saw." From across the stage, keyboard player Jerry "Fuzzy" Shelton looks at Smith and guitarist Michael Aguirre, then back over his shoulder at his brother, Dwayne Shelton, behind the drum kit. Then he grabs the mic and says, "Let's show them how we used to do it back in the day."

Without missing a beat, all four musicians snap into a verse's worth of the rumba groove so familiar from King's original recording, then back into their own funk rhythm, prompting hollers and applause from the audience.

It's the opening night of the Blues Royale at BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups, and though organizers Dave Beardsley and Larry Cowsert have jokingly referred to the competition as "an American Idol for blues bands," what's really happening here is something equally old school: a battle of the bands. Every chance to make an impression counts, because the crowd gets a collective vote that's counted along with the votes from the five judges.

In total, fifteen electric bands and five acoustic acts are expected to take part. All four nights are being recorded for possible release on a compilation CD, and the winning band and acoustic act will each get a prize package that includes studio time to record a 10-song album, 100 retail-ready CDs and the services of a publicist to promote the release.

Still, Beardsley -- whose Web site, STLBlues.net, has become a popular resource -- and Cowsert, who heads a recording studio and production company called 12 Bar Productions, aren't in it just for the money. Their mission is to raise awareness of St. Louis as a hotbed of blues music and to serve as role models. "I started 12 Bar with Sam Phillips and Sun Records as my model," says Cowsert. "We want to find talent, help incubate it and then pass it on to the national stage."

An ambitious plan, to be sure -- but as the members of New Rising Sun watch the setup for the next band, they seem satisfied with what they've accomplished tonight, no matter what happens next. The band usually plays small joints on the east side and in north St. Louis. Tonight, they've gotten stage time at the city's best-known blues club and positive attention from a whole new group of potential fans, with the possibility of more to come.

"For two days' notice, it went pretty well," says Jerry Shelton, gesturing at his NAPA Auto Parts shirt as evidence of the last-minute scheduling complications that forced him to rush straight to the show from his day job.

That's life for a working man who's also a working blues musician. But if Beardsley and Cowsert have their way, perhaps Shelton and others will get to do more of the latter. -- Dean C. Minderman of the Riverfront Times

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