The sounds of The Ghost Town Blues Band are among the first to greet the ears of visitors to the Bluff City.On a typical Wednesday night, the six-piece band can be found performing at Beale Street’s Rum Boogie nightclub, the group’s unofficial home and the place that brought them all together.
Frontman Matt Isbell channels the versatility of blues greats like Eddie Burns as he sidles from one end of the stage to the other, interacting with band members while shifting roles between vocals, lead guitar and harmonica. The brass section bounces in tune, with Coleman Garrett’s smooth sax backing the sliding trombone antics of his right-hand man, Suavo Jones. Keyboard player Jeremy Powell sways and smiles in his seat while his Ray Charles-infused grin spreads wider as the set goes on. In the back, bassist Alex Piazza and drummer Preston McEwen provide a backup rhythm in between puffs of cigarettes perched deftly between each of their lips.For The Ghost Town Blues Band, providing a consistent level of energy is paramount.
The group aims to maintain the same level of enthusiasm behind their respective instruments whether playing in front of hundreds of festivalgoers or a handful of European tourists. “We meet people from all over the world playing at Rum Boogie. It’s a place where we’ve grown from a trio to a six-piece.“ says Isbell.Now, the six-piece hopes to take their electrically charged sound to the next level in the 29th annual International Blues Challenge, the largest convergence of blues bands in the world. More than 200 different acts will descend upon the blues Mecca of Beale Street in Memphis from January 27 to February 3 to rattle the windows of local establishments and deliver the best in solo, duo and group performances. The competition is formed through a collaboration between different blues societies across the world, with Ghost Town Blues Band gaining the Memphis Blues Foundation’s backing for their group act of choice.“If you win that thing, it really changes your career,” Isbell says. “And it’s not just the blues competition. It’s the biggest blues convention that’s out there. You basically get to see all of the talent buyers and the talent that’s out there, even the club owners – it’s a really good network.”
The band threw their hats in the ring last year and, holding true to the title of their latest record, “Dark Horse,” didn’t expect to last long in the competition. However, Isbell and the boys persevered and The Ghost Town Blues Band broke through to the finals. “We came in with the idea of having fun and all of a sudden we were in the finals. We had made it to the top nine blues acts of the whole world,” Isbell says.Florida’s Selwyn Birchwood Band took home last year’s title, which includes prizes, bragging rights and, most importantly, recognition from contemporaries across the globe. Former IBC winners include Tommy Castro, Albert Cummings, Larry Garner and Richard Johnston. Preliminary rounds take place up and down the Beale Street strip, giving the boys a homefield advantage of sorts. “We basically started our careers working on one end of Beale and moved our way to the other,” Isbell says.
Ghost Town began as a trio comprised of Isbell, McEwen and former bassist Dusty Sikes. In true Beale Street fashion, the current members have been playing alongside each other before even knowing the others’ names. For Isbell, the music speaks for itself. “Some nights we’d be playing at Rum Boogie and a guy comes up to the stage with a sax and we’re all ‘Hey, let’s come on, hop on up,’” Isbell says of his introduction to Garrett.With a distinct sound and a rapid call-and-response volley between performers, the band has earned the somewhat dubious classification of “Modern Blues,” standing out against a backdrop of staunch traditionalists. “We kind of get knocked for not being too traditional, but we’re also young,” he says. “Our band is all from Memphis except for our bass player, who happens to be from New Orleans. I like to say that we bridge the gap between Memphis and New Orleans for the best in River-music blues. We’re a little bit funky like New Orleans but we’ve still got that Delta sound that you’d expect from a group that comes from Memphis or anywhere in-between”But “modern” doesn’t imply slick or sleek.
The instruments are still clavichord, and, like all great blues, their sound is still best heard in a bar over bourbon. There’s a little delay or wah-wah in some tunes, but seasoned strummers like Albert King wouldn’t argue with that. “What makes it new and fresh is our approach, I guess,” Isbell says. “When we do take older songs like ‘Messin’ With the Kid’ by Junior Wells, we try our best to make it fresh and give it a new, syncopated feel. If we do covers, we definitely give them a little Memphis feel, but there’s not a whole lot of thought put into it.”With half a dozen unique musicians from varying backgrounds, the group prefers the push semantics of to the side and leave the judging to the ears of the listener. “There’s a lot to look at and it’s a nice, lush, filled-out sound,” Isbell says. “Everyone likes to see a horn section, especially when tourists come to town. Also, we don’t play Mustang Sally. In fact, it’s a $100 tip if you want us to do that and you can believe it’ll be better than any Mustang Sally cover you’ve ever heard.”
Music | January 2014
Battle of the Blues
The Ghost Town Blues Band reaches for new heights at this year’s International Blues Challenge
Story and photos by Casey Hilder